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Book Review: Wissahickon Souls by PJ Devlin

Claire Penniman, a free black living near Philadelphia in the early 1800s,  is only six years old when she is indentured to Raymond and Anna Williams, white landowners who have known her family for many years. Elizabeth and Moses, Claire’s parents, have already indentured their older son Samuel to the Williams in hopes that both of their children will learn invaluable life skills as well as reading, writing, and arithmetic in exchange for working the land and tending the animals. Wissahickon Farm quickly becomes a part of who Claire is, and she easily befriends five-year-old Lawrence, the youngest son of Anna and Raymond. As Claire and Lawrence grow so does their bond, creating an uneasy relationship between Claire and Anna who sees the danger with her son becoming too attached to a black girl. Near the end of her twelve-year indenture, Claire and Lawrence run away to Haiti to begin a life together in a country where they believe their races won’t matter, but they quickly learn they can’t escape prejudice, and their love may not be stronger than fear. 

Set in time when trains are new and steamboats rule, Wissahickon Souls spans thirty years in the life of Claire Penniman. She grows from an impetuous, daring little girl to a strong, independent woman. Claire’s journey, both physically and mentally, showcases the trials of African Americans in the 1800s. Though Claire’s family has a long history as free blacks living in a Northern city, they are far from free. Prejudice lurks around every bend and dark alley in Germantown and Philadelphia, and the Penniman family keeps a dangerous secret–the family “business.” For decades, the family has helped runaway slaves seeking asylum and has delivered hundreds of “packages” farther north, even giving permanent refuge to some. This episodic tale shows numerous examples of the risks this family endures, and though the Penniman’s are fictional characters, it is not hard to see the real dangers evident in their exploits and to appreciate the courage of those who did provide safe havens for all those runaways.
A theme of monumental importance within the novel revolves around sewing. Claire’s sewing literally becomes the tie that binds. Claire is taught her craft by her mother and grandmother, just as she learns the skill of helping slaves to freedom. She uses her ability to both heal the injured and protect her family from the harsh world. As an adult, her needlework becomes a means of feeding her children and bonding her to strangers who become vitally important within the novel’s tight fabric. Repeatedly, she is called upon for her talent and earns hardwon respect for it. 

The idea of love’s boundaries is clear in this Romeo and Juliet tragedy. From vicious white men to a raging flash flood, Lawrence repeatedly saves Claire but is unable for years to stand beside her in public. As children, Lawrence doesn’t see Claire’s race until others force him to see it then he is unable to reconcile himself to the difficulty of their life together. Even after running to Haiti, the land of free blacks, the couple is torn apart by race. They seemingly can’t completely love each other anywhere, often not even in their own hearts, and though the doomed couple is most obviously an example of this theme, it is perhaps more poignant between Claire and Anna. 

Anna, Lawrence’s mother, fears Claire’s influence from the beginning. She has seen how the world treats race and, to a certain extent, does nothing to change it until it is almost too late. She wastes many years believing Claire unworthy of her white son and nearly loses everything before learning that character is built upon more substance than color.

Claire’s sprawling, twisting journey from rescuer to runaway to redeemer will transport the reader on an intense trip through history.

This review was written for Chanticleer Reviews.