Tag Archives: Slavery

Tara Conklin – The House Girl (2013)

TheHouseGirlI liked this book, although I do have significant qualms with it. It has a great premise and stated out strong. Shifting from the points of view of Lina, an ambitious lawyer hoping to make partner at her prestigious law firm, and Josephine, a Black house girl living on Virginia plantation in the 1840s, Conklin explores how these two women’s stories intersect through the ages. Lina is assigned to find a plaintiff for a slavery reparations case, which leads her to discover the artwork of Lu Ann Bell and her house girl Josephine. Through her connections in the art world and meticulous historical research, Lina soon discovers the truth behind the art of Lu Ann Bell and the fate of Josephine.

The story is compelling but not wholly realistic, especially in representing Lina’s journey to a Virginia archive. In the book Lina experiences something I like to call a “Rosetta Stone” moment, something that all historians would love to experience but rarely do; finding a singular letter that proves everything that Lina always believed to be true. How wonderful it would be if history worked this way but alas, moments like this are rare. Historians have to work hard to make their point, and as they should. Often times we find ourselves so frustrated, “If only this source existed,” “If only this census data was not destroyed,” “If only everything survived.” Unfortunately those sources rarely exist and contextual evidence must be used. Maybe I’m just bitter that Lina had it so easy, simply being handed a file by the archivist, “Here you go, everything you need is contained in this one letter that I so conveniently seem to have right here.” If only I had a magical archivist guiding me in my Masters research.

The ending of the book fell flat. I think ending a book is one of the hardest things to do, but after such a compelling start and build up, there was no real crescendo and the ending felt rushed with loose ends hastily tied together. It was an ok read, a good piece of historical fiction, but nothing to rave about.

Rating: 3/5

Abolitionism and Vegetarianism

While I was reading The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier I also happened to be listening to an episode of Backstory with the American History Guys, a podcast that deals with themes in American History. This particular episode detailed the history of nutritious eating the United States, and during the course of the podcast the topic of abolitionism came up. I had never been fully aware of the link between Abolitionism and Vegetarianism before and did a bit more of my own research into the topic, specifically the role of Quakers and how the character of Honor Bright would have linked the abolitionist cause to her diet.

In 1850 William Alcott, a well-known abolitionist (And father of Louisa May Alcott) founded The American Vegetarian Society. Alcott believed “There is no slavery in this world like the slavery of a man to his appetite. Let man but abstain from the use of the flesh and fish, and the slavery of one man to another cannot long exist.”

 While Alcott explicitly linked the consumption of meat and fish to slavery, the larger idea that meat caused individuals to become violent and corrupted, was more popular. The names of Graham and Kellogg are household names today, but all these men got their start in the 19th century.

Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian Minister from New Jersey, developed then Graham diet around 1829 to suppress “unhealthy carnal knowledge.” As part of a sexual panic at the time (this is where the myth that masturbation could cause blindness took hold), Graham believed that eating very bland foods could curb sexual urges. This included fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole wheat and high fiber foods. Meat and spices were excluded altogether but very fresh milk, cheese, and eggs were permitted “in moderation.” Thus the Graham Cracker was born. Originally the Graham Cracker was made with whole-wheat flour and was unsweetened; drastically different that our modern version.

Will Keith Kellogg also subscribed to this line of thinking. As a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Kellogg practiced vegetarianism, but was also somewhat obsessed with the health of American people. He saw breakfast, which was traditionally meat and eggs especially troubling and sought to provide a healthier alternative. He promoted corn flakes as a healthy breakfast, producing it with whole grains and no sugar.

I was looking for some more information about the links between Vegetarianism and Quakers and came across this article written by Kenneth L. Carrol titled “Early Quakers and Fasting.” The article mentions that Quaker attitudes towards fasting was most likely inspired by polemic writings of the 1650s which stressed that fasting could make one more in tune with spiritual knowledge. While the article does not specifically mention vegetarianism as it has been linked to abolitionism, it does mention that many Quakers refrained from eating meat and rich foods as a way to encourage communication with the Holy Spirit.

Quakers, as pacifists, are historically known for their opposition to slavery, (although some Quakers did hold slaves). This also sometimes affected consumer habits of Quakers and what we can call a very early iteration of advocating for “labour free” goods. John Woolman, well known for his role in shaping eighteenth century Quaker abolitionism, was vehemently opposed to Caribbean slavery and urged everyone to boycott all products produced by slaves including sugar, rum, molasses, tea, and cotton. Instead he urged Quakers, (Woolman was a travelling preacher) to produce their own food and clothing so as not to live of the labour of slaves. Andrew White writes, “One becomes what one east: by ingesting the sweetener the consumer actively participates in the barbaric, cannibalistic violence committed against the body of the slave that produces it.” While not all Quakers would have listened to Woolman, just as not all Quakers were abolitionists, or vegetarian, this is an interesting perspective on eating habits and consumerism, and how food could become a very political thing.

After the Civil War and emancipation the vegetarian movement began to fall apart without the cause of slavery to hold it together. It was soon taken up again however by the spirit of the early 19th century and focus on reforming one’s self, including health reform. Vegetarianism however still remained closely tied to religious movements with various Church founders having recommended vegetarianism. (Ellen G. White – Seventh Day Adventists) Historically many Quakers were supporters of the vegetarian movement due to its ties to abolitionism, and some members still practice vegetarianism or veganism as a reflection of the Peace Testament, extending non-violence towards animals. A Christian Vegetarian Association was founded in 1999 as a non-denominational organization promoting respect for God’s creation through abstaining from eating meat.

Today many people are vegetarian for a variety of reasons including but not limited to ethical, environmental, and health. Many, like me, also are not aware that vegetarianism has religious roots and was often intimately tied to political issues of the day like Abolition.

There is a good chance that Honor Bright, in Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway would have practiced vegetarianism, even if her husband’s family did not necessarily approve of her abolitionist ways, and ate things like Oat Cakes made from the recipe below.

Oat Cakes (As served at Mackenzie House)

3 cups fine oatmeal (rolled outs ground in a blender)
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, cut into bits
2 cups boiling water

Pour boiling water over butter and salt, stir to dissolve. Pour the mixture over the oats and stir thoroughly. Leave bout 1/2 hour, until doughy and cool enough to handle. Press into shallow, engrossed pans and press down with hands until it is like thick card-board. Roll flat with rolling pin. Cut into triangles and bake at 250 degrees for 2-3 hours until hard. Do not roll out too thinly or they will break. Serve with butter or preserves. Store in airtight container.


Alcott, Vegetable Diet Defended

Alcott, Young Housekeeper: or, Thought on Food and Cookery

Backstory with the American History Guys

Carrol, Kenneth, “Early Quakers and Fasting,” Quaker History, vol. 97, no. 1 (Spring 2008) pp. 1-10.

Frost, Willaim, “Quaker Antislavery: From Dissidence to Sense of the Meeting,” Quaker History, vol/ 101, no. 1, (Spring 2012), pp. 12-33.

White, Andrew, “A “Consuming” Oppression: Sugar, Cannibalism, and John Woolman’s 1770 Slave Dream,” Quaker History, vol. 96, No. 2, (Fall 2007), pp. 1-27.

Tracy Chevalier – The Last Runaway (2013)


A pretty solid work of historical fiction. In this novel, Chevalier tells the story of Honor Bright, a Quaker woman who, after being jilted by her fiancé in England decides to accompany her sister, Grace, to America to help Grace adjust to he upcoming marriage and impending life as a pioneer woman. Tragedy strikes however, and Honor finds herself alone in a strange country, depended on the kindness of stagers in 1850s Ohio. As a Quaker in England, Honor had always been taught that it was wrong to hold another person in bondage, but in American she learns the bitter truth and how very little in life is black and white.

Chevalier does an amazing job crafter her characters and while the narrative may fall short at times, her prose and style make up for it. Honor Bright is a sympathetic character and it is hard not to take her side as she is determined to help runaway slaves even though her new husband’s family forbids her to do so. Chevalier also does a fantastic job setting the scene for the novel painting Ohio as a wild and untamed place juxtaposed with the rigid structure of a Quaker community.

I found this book an absolute joy to read and fans of Chevalier’s work will not be disappointed.