Danger, love and safety are lost and found repeatedly in this fictional autobiography that opens in 1870 with the census taker filling out his form. An old Black woman sits at her home in Ohio. Is she 112? It makes no difference, She is at least 90. Her name in this world is Maryam Priscilla Grace and she is from the Edo somewhere in Africa where she was captured by a hostile tribe and sold into slavery.
Williams richly portrays Little Bird, a middle child, daughter of her widowed father’s second wife, not yet a woman. She carves out her place in her large family by being not too pretty and very talented with language. Her father finds it both safe and useful to take her to town when he has business and she soaks up as many languages and dialects as she can. Her teenaged sisters are all talking about marriage and the secrets women share, teasing Little Bird and not quite letting the youngest daughter into the\ir circle. Williams captures, the smell of her village the snippets a ten year old picks up from the adults around her when her life is still focused on play and chores, the knowledge that there are predators out there and what happens –the painful story of what happens –when you are captured and shackled and marched for days to a port city where you will travel in unspeakable conditions to an unknown place. Experiences that form deep memories: grief, a desire to be no more and the tug toward life when life makes no sense at all. Yet Little Bird forever has only a child’s perception of her experience and a child’s memory of home.
The girl who becomes Maryam does not take a straight line into enslavement. She is born free, even though she did not understand what freedom was as she lived her life. She experiences a brief period in the United States where, by chance, she learns about midwifery and treating illness and injury. She is good at this and has a wonderful teacher, but that time is not to last. She is ultimately captured once more and sold, becoming an enslaved person on a plantation. She serves residents and is hired out to neighbors as a healer/midwife but still must work the fields as well. Along the way, Mariam encounters men who are fundamentally evil and those who treat her with loving regard. She has children whose fates she cannot control. And always we watch the push and pull of pursuing life and losing hope in a world where you are property. Valuable property because of your skills that bring comfort to the ill. Throughout, this is a hard, harsh story but it shows among many of the characters, personal strength, and finding meaning in a life that subjugates you and pushes back against any nonconforming behavior. Terrible things happen, yet this is largely a pleasant book to read because it is Maryam’s tale of her past, we already know she is now okay, and throughout, she is a fiercely independent minded person, acting within the rules – mostly — but never giving up the central truth of who she is. Her common sense dictates care and obedience. But those people need her and she has some measure of safety and stature not everyone enjoys. Little Bird lives through the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. As a healer and midwife, she has a front row seat to white and black people at their most vulnerable and she holds many secrets. Her deep knowledge of human psychology, enriches every encounter.
The episodic tale of her life is totally engrossing, believable, and varied yet at the beginning and at the end it is a story of safety, security and love among one’s multi-generational family. And in the middle, there is subjugation, the knowledge that nothing at all belongs to you including your own body and your “family.” That the desire to live a full life is powerful and how you do this can take many shapes. Family takes many shapes, even in unusual settings on a slave ship, in an odd interlude in life, on the plantation. It is always paramount, but never certain for an enslaved person and so it must be reinvented just to survive. Things Past Telling is one of those books, where, when I reached the end, I sat quiet for several moments and breathed out a “Whoa!” How do you capture the loveliness and truth in this story without making it sound simplistic, because it is not, or Uncle Tom-like, which it is not. See what you think! I highly recommend this read!