Walk Through Darkness
by David Anthony Durham
"Walk Through Darkness is the tale of two very different men, each on a quest, both tied together by a history of remorse, jealousy, and a love that crosses the barriers of race during the time of slavery." "William, a fugitive slave from Maryland, is driven by two powerful needs - to find his wife, Dover, who is pregnant with his child, and to live as a free man. He undertakes the treacherous journey north to restore meaning to his life, putting him at odds with the law and the sentiments of a nation. Morrison, who fled a painful youth in Scotland, had once hoped to establish a new life in America with his brother, but the unforeseen realities of immigrant life drove them apart." As David Anthony Durham traces the physical and spiritual journeys of William, Dover, and Morrison, he captures in detail the events and the landscape of America just before the turmoil of the Civil War. Interweaving tragedy and hardship with a profound understanding of enduring love and the desire for freedom, Walk Through Darkness is a complex story that is uniquely American, reflecting the tortured nature of the country's bloodlines and uncovering the deep bonds - and wounds - that exist across racial lines. This is a work of "fiction in history" that follows two very different men's paths to freedom, and places a difficult part of our nation's history under a magnifying glass to search for something beyond pain. In the end, it also presents a new possibility of healing - for the characters, and for the larger racial divide that still haunts the United States.
Publishers Weekly (Starred Review): Powerfully written and emotionally devastating, this new novel by Durham (Gabriel's Story) tells the parallel tales of two men in antebellum America: William, a young fugitive slave, and Morrison, a white man hired to track him. William escapes from Maryland and makes his way toward Philadelphia in search of his pregnant wife, Dover. Morrison, an older Scottish immigrant, has lived a hard, violent life he's not proud of, whose dark secrets such as his responsibility for the death of his brother slowly emerge as the story unwinds. During his hair-raising flight, William is captured by unscrupulous bounty hunters and threatened with discovery at every turn. He risks his life again and again because "there were regions within him upon which no claim of ownership had hold," and because he wants to find his wife and be a free man. The abominable treatment of slaves is always in the foreground, but Durham never succumbs to sentimentality. In one particularly grueling scene, Morrison learns of the tortures to be inflicted on a black prisoner before he is put to death, and he mercifully ends the man's life. In the thrilling climax, Morrison reveals an unexpected tie that binds him to William and makes a gesture that he hopes will redeem his sins. Durham's writing is forceful and full of startling imagery as he testifies to the courage (and sometimes the ambivalence) of people who, in one way or another, rebelled against the great injustice in American history. (May) Forecast: Like Durham's well-received debut, this is a tale of quests and the transformations they inspire. Hopefully, those who missed Gabriel's Story will be alerted to this title, which definitively establishes Durham on the literary map...
Library Journal: In his second novel (after Gabriel's Story), set shortly before the Civil War, Durham skillfully interweaves the stories of two men, each searching for something essential in his life. William, a Maryland slave, has been hired out to an extremely cruel master. When he receives word that his wife, Dover, is pregnant and has gone to Philadelphia, accompanying her owner's wife, William sees all his hopes and dreams vanishing and runs away to find Dover, their unborn child, and freedom. The journey is perilous he is captured twice and when he does reach Philadelphia he has no idea how to find Dover or what to do next. William's story alternates with that of Andrew Morrison, an old Scot, with both narratives smoothly blended into a whole. His quest is for redemption and is as emotionally painful as William's. Despite the vividly described obstacles and hardships, this is a love story portraying the bonds between man and woman, parent and child, brother and brother, and man and animal. Durham tells a compelling story, deftly rendering both tenderness and brutality. Recommended for all public libraries. Ann Fleury, Tampa-Hillsborough P.L., FL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
by Anthony Walton, New York Times Book Review
THE journey undertaken by the hero of David Anthony Durham's second novel, ''Walk Through Darkness,'' brings to mind the archetypal story of Frederick Douglass: William, an escaped slave, must make his way north from tidewater Maryland in pursuit of his freedom and his true love, with little help beyond fate. Philadelphia is only about 100 miles away; but to traverse those miles, William must swim the Chesapeake Bay; find himself betrayed and recaptured; endure a forced march in a ''coffle,'' a line of chained slaves; then, after a second escape, stow away and suffer near execution before the ship's captain, in an act of contrition, releases him on the docks of Philadelphia.
These events make up just the first half of William's ordeal. Over the course of the novel a second, equally driven character emerges -- the Scotsman hired to track him. Andrew Morrison left the oppression of his ancestral home decades before in pursuit of the American dream, but, forced to survive amid the cruel realities facing the poor whites of the time, has fallen into a life of wandering and, the novel implies, hired killing. Returning to Maryland from the West intending to settle family business, Morrison sees the wanted posters for the fugitive William and signs on for the hunt. The action of the novel moves with a foreboding inevitability between the two men. Imagine ''The Searchers'' spending equal time with John Wayne's Ethan and the object of his epic pursuit, the largely unseen Scar.
Durham's first novel, ''Gabriel's Story,'' a coming-of-age tale set in the post-Civil War West, recast the western, writing African-Americans into that seminal genre. The 33-year-old author has formed his own inclusive and original vision of American society, nourished by a nuanced understanding of history and an intuitive, almost spooky feel for the inner lives of its inhabitants. Shortly after William is placed in a prison for slaves, his awareness of himself shifts; another slave says ''something, so softly that at first William didn't make it out. He thought on it and the fading words ordered themselves in his mind. The man had asked him over, had instructed him in simple words, to come get some shade. With that simple phrase and gesture William saw them anew. He realized that he recognized them all. He might not know them by name or face or blood relation, but they were his people after all. They wore the same chains. He walked toward them and took his place among them.''
''Walk Through Darkness'' is full of such quietly beautiful moments. Durham, however, does not flinch from the violence that was endemic to that period, as when William witnesses a massacre by slaves overthrowing their captors: ''Saxon sliced the man's flesh in-line with his jaw, behind the ears and up along the edges of his scalp. He stared as Saxon tossed away the blade, wormed his fingers beneath the edges of the cut and ripped the man's face from his skull. He stood and lifted the flap of flesh on the palm of his hand, like an offering to God. His forearms dripped with the mingled blood of his victim's face and of his own wrists. Then he spoke for the first time. 'Next time they come for me I tell them Saxon not a nigger,' he said. 'I say, ''Look, look my white man's face.'' ' ''
Both of Durham's characters have their places in this kaleidoscopic prism of violence, and both have suffered from it. William is not simply a passive victim, but a person consumed at times with hatred and thoughts of revenge. Looking back over his own checkered past in America, Morrison reflects: ''The voices had never left him in peace. They had become his own and he could not escape from himself. He concluded that he might indeed harbor some of that great evil within himself. He took no joy in this possibility.''
As the novel progresses, the odysseys of the two principal characters become much more difficult than they had ever imagined possible. Like Frederick Douglass, William finds that the necessities of his external journey impose upon his consciousness a journey through an even more difficult internal landscape. Durham grants to William, to both his central figures, questions that on one level are simple, yet also of Emersonian complexity: How much is one bound by one's past? What is the meaning of freedom? What does it mean to take responsibility for one's own life and the lives of others? William reflects on the uncertainties of his future: ''Even if he were granted all the freedoms of the nation he wouldn't fully understand how to use them. Though he would be allowed to speak he would have no voice. He would never be able to debate the finer points of a French garden, or dream the colleges of unborn children, or be so confident as to imagine an entire lifetime shaped by his own inclinations. There would always be parts of himself that he hated...''
''Walk Through Darkness'' is deeply influenced, though much less so than its predecessor, by the work of Cormac McCarthy; through the lens of McCarthy we can infer the looming shadows of Melville (the seafaring novels in particular) and Faulkner. The most powerful, yet subtle, allusion is to Twain's Huck and Jim; though William and Morrison do not travel together, the structure of the novel places them on parallel tracks of revelation that converge as the action moves toward its climax. It is difficult to discuss Durham's work without citing such references; he has the skill to draw from them in ways other than self-consciously ironic, postmodern pastiche, to draw them together into a satisfying whole. The critic Mark Edmundson has written that the next advance in our literature will come from writers who can look beyond the stark divide of black and white and simple apportionments of blame and guilt toward what comes after: ''Walk Through Darkness'' is an indication that such writers may be on the horizon.
A Fugitive Slave's Quest For Freedom and Family
by Janet Maslin, New York Times
David Anthony Durham made a memorable debut last year with his novel ''Gabriel's Story,'' set in the 1870's and vividly describing the travels of an African-American teenager through the frontier West. His second book uses a similarly lush, reflective, sometimes brutal style to tell a story set just before the Civil War.
Like its predecessor, ''Walk Through Darkness'' is about an evocative journey. Its main character is William, a fugitive slave from a Maryland tidewater plantation. In stages that are alternately lyrical and harrowing, William finds his way north, hoping to be reunited with the woman he loves. Meanwhile, like Paulette Jiles in her current ''Enemy Women,'' Mr. Durham sets the details of these travels against a sharply drawn natural and historical tableau.
While Ms. Jiles writes about the circumstances of a tough, indomitable woman, Mr. Durham's subject is slavery. He approaches it with both descriptive and analytical passion. He makes William a careful observer of the many hardships and vicissitudes that define his beginnings, as well as a man strong enough to reshape his destiny. ''These here scars ain't nothing I'm troubled about,'' William says regarding the marks on his back. ''They just the reminder of the day I got the sense beat into me and became my own man.''
As ''Walk Through Darkness'' begins, William has just escaped a tyrannical white man named Humboldt and set off on his own. The road on which Mr. Durham sends him is a winding one, passing through many different aspects of antebellum America as it goes. The author, who was born in New York, later lived in Trinidad and now lives in Scotland, has drawn upon part of his own family history to tell this story and has also woven research into his narrative. His book is solid, forceful, occasionally speechy and always centered on this thought expressed by one of its characters: ''Shame is of no use unless one is prepared to learn from it.''
There are black-and-white aspects to this book, but the meaning of freedom is not one of them. William escapes, only to be recaptured by bounty hunters; then he escapes all over again. Profiteering white men are relentlessly on the trail of runaway slaves, but there are fellow blacks willing to prey on him, too. And there is a wide spectrum of African-American experience represented here, from Gullah characters of the Carolinas to the Northern city dwellers. William remains ever watchful, as when he notices that he is being patronized. ''Everything about the free man's educated tone aggravated him,'' Mr. Durham writes. ''The brevity with which he shot down each proposal they made, the way the corner of his lips dipped before he spoke, the manner in which he explained the hard facts behind things as if to a young child. Even the way he held his teacup -- the angle of his wrist and pauses in his speech during which he drank -- seemed an insult.''
With similar precision, Mr. Durham also presents William's nemesis: a Scotsman named Andrew Morrison, who tracks William while remaining mindful of his own immigrant experience. Morrison's side of the story is presented in long, needlessly italicized passages, but there are effective ways in which his thoughts are linked to William's. ''Walk Through Darkness'' is as attuned to the guilt inherent in slavery as it is to the monstrousness, and Mr. Durham can be poetically graceful in describing it. Morrison remembers having worked with his sibling at a glue factory, and that ''the younger brother would wake up lashing out at his bedsheets, troubled by dreams of vengeful horses rising up from soup in which they boiled.''
Along their respective paths, William and Morrison manage to touch many bases. Some of these are described with harshly accurate violence, as in descriptions of a slave rebellion and a lynching. But more often ''Walk Through Darkness'' has a gentle wisdom, as when a ship's captain who helps slaves escape remembers a moment of enlightenment. He recalls walking outdoors with his daughter, slashing at the underbrush, until she told him, ''Father, be courteous, or the forest won't know you from a ruffian...''
Mr. Durham ultimately combines history and morality with a dynamic intelligence, even when the points he makes should be all too clear. ''You think it takes a free man to tell a slave he ain't living right?'' William asks. ''To my mind, other way around makes more sense.''
''Walk Through Darkness'' is a book-length illustration of what that means.
For a Runaway Slave and the Scotsman Tracking him, it's Personal
by Adam Dunn, San Francisco Chronicle
Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love and make a baby. Except, among slaves in the antebellum South, this usually makes for unimaginable heartache and loss as family lineages are bought, sold, traded and trampled beyond recognition by the "peculiar institution" that belied the creed of a nation that had declared that "all men are created equal."
David Anthony Durham's evocative and finely wrought second novel, "Walk Through Darkness," which follows a runaway mulatto slave named William and a white tracker named Morrison on his trail, resonates with the great American historical irony: Founded in reaction to tyranny, America's habit was slavery and the acceptance of institutionalized racism its denial.
The setting, judging by William's age and references to abolitionism (which William has heard of but does not believe in), yellow fever (from which William nearly perishes on his travels) and the Fugitive Slave Act, points to the tense climate of the mid-1840s, when the potential consequences of maintaining a Southern slave economy are becoming painfully visible.
William knows nothing of this. At 23, he has been bought and sold innumerable times and carries whip scars from shoulders to waist. The novel opens with William daring to swim the Chesapeake to escape a sadistic plantation owner and be reunited with his lover, Dover, who is carrying their unborn child. William's mother has just died, and Dover has been taken by her mistress to live in Philadelphia. (Little mention is made of this rarity of slaves being brought to free states by their owners, beyond the observation, "I don't know what's happened to her since, but she must be living a better life than us down here.") Existence without Dover is meaningless, and William plots his escape.
Around the same time, a white Scotsman named Morrison receives a letter that summons him from his wanderings through the untamed Western expanses ("far enough north that he entered a marshy land of lakes and black flies, and far enough south that he had viewed a panorama of craters, barren spaces and skeletal protrusions that betrayed the earth's mortality") to offer his services as a tracker and hunter in William's pursuit.
William's encounters during his flight north show him just how cut off a slave is from knowledge of the world beyond the plantation. He falls in with the first black person he meets and is promptly betrayed to bounty-hunting fugitive seekers, whose viciousness is returned in kind when several of their charges (not including William, whose hatred for white men has not yet reached the boiling point) stage a violent escape. Abducted (and later liberated) by a privateer of dubious sexuality, he finally arrives in Philadelphia, where he is awestruck by the sight of free Negroes:
"They all, no matter the class or age or sex, had a demeanor about them that was unfamiliar. Their spines were set firm and straight. And there was something else, an intangible energy in the air around them that hummed like a tuning fork just before it faded into silence."
Sick and starving, when he is finally reunited with Dover (now in the questionable company of a handsome black abolitionist named Redford) he is surprisingly awkward and uncomfortable.
The chapters narrating William's escape are interspersed with those of Morrison's closing in on his quarry. As he does, memories of past quarrels over his brother Lewis' relationship with a slave girl gnaw ever more strongly at him, and his shame gives way to disgust in the face of the slavering cruelty of his fellow fortune-seekers. This plot has all the makings of a Western-style showdown; its climax and resolution, despite the inevitable violence that is part of nearly all racial confrontations in the novel, is anything but.
While the author's primary focus is slavery, he devotes much of his story to its personal effects. Both William and Morrison grew up essentially fatherless; it is the thought of his unborn child repeating the cycle that drives William to escape. William has no concept of dealing with other blacks, from being outwitted by the turncoat who betrays him to his sneering at the well-heeled Redford. Morrison's racist sibling rivalry (and its unforeseeable consequences) envelops him in a fog of bone-deep guilt that isolates him from other whites of his day (including the abolitionists).
The twin protagonists are very much alone in a burgeoning population. Only Dover manages to rise to the level where the vision of a truly free existence can transcend vengeful rage -- with some help from Morrison, whose representation of collective white guilt does double duty for Durham's admiration of Scotland (where he currently resides), land of Hume and Smith. Durham's idolized Scotland contrasts sharply with the ancient barbarism of antebellum America.