Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Well, I'm off to a roaring start in my 2012 reading. I've already finished four books and the month is only have over. Hopefully I won't burn my self out.

Although it was only published last year, this particular title is one that I have been hearing about for the past few months. I felt fortunate that I was able to find it at our local public library here in Frankfort and that it wasn't checked out. It's only 190 pages, so it didn't take long to finish reading.

After breezing through the preface of the book I was pretty skeptical that the author would be able to put together a quality historical account based on only five letters from Louisville, Kentucky slaveowner Fanny Thurston (later Ballard) to her escaped slave Cecelia (later Holmes, later Larrison).

The story began when on a vacation trip to Niagara Falls in 1846 with Fanny and her father, Cecelia (15 years old at the time) took advantage of her closeness to Canada, slipped away and crossed the river to freedom. There wasn't much that the Thurstons could do about it since Canada was not obligated to return fugitive slaves.

Cecelia eventually moved to Toronto and married, but her husband soon died. In 1861 she then moved to Rochester, New York where she married again. This husband joined a white Civil War regiment as a cook and served to the end of the war. After the Civil War Cecelia and her husband moved to Louisville to be with Cecelia's mother who had remained a slave for the Thurstons and Ballards, but was now free. Fanny, of course, had grown up too. She married Andrew Jackson Ballard, a Louisville attorney, two years after Cecelia ran away, and then in the 1850s the Ballards had five children.

Having so few letters to construct his story around, the author made good use of other primary sources such as city directories, census and tax records. Also, the author benefited from having a short explanatory article that Fanny's son had left in his papers that filled in some cracks in the documented record. This son was Rogers Clark Ballard Thurston, who had a deep interest in history and eventually became the president of the Filson Club (now Filson Historical Society).

The five letters came into Rogers Clark Ballard Thurston's hands when Cecelia in 1899, needing some financial assistance. When Cecilia's husband suddenly disappeared (possibly drowned) and she had difficulty collecting his Civil War pension, she needed money badly and offered to sell them to Thurston. He eventually donated his papers, which included these letters, to the Filson, where remain are today.

Having so little to go on, the author did have to speculate and infer to a certain degree, but I was pleased that at least he made sure to explain why when he did so. I found his chapter on the Civil War in Louisville especially interesting. The story of Fanny's father as a boy witnessing his father being killed in a cornfield by a slave with a knife (around 1800) was fascinating too. No doubt that legacy left an lasting impression on his descendants and shaped their impressions of African Americans.

On a scale of one to five, I give it a 4, so do like I did, check it out.

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