The Abolitionist's Daughter


Greetings from the Smoky Mountains! After two years of obsessing over my book, it’s at the publisher’s. Now that we’re settled in our summer home, I’ve spent many glorious hours rocking on the porch, savoring the cool breezes and ever-present music of nearby Buck Creek while slowly depleting the pile of unread books I brought with me.

The Abolitionist’s Daughter was one of the first I read. I’ve known Diane McPhail, a gifted visual artist and now a bona fide writer, for several years. I’ve attended her art workshops here, and she’s attended my dream groups. We both attended meetings of our little town’s writer’s group. I first heard about her project years ago when she was in the early stages of crafting her story and shared samples of her work with us, all the while wondering if she had it in her to be a real writer. I’ve been looking forward to it ever since and wasn’t disappointed. Far from it. I was captivated from beginning to end and devoured it in three days. I highly recommend it for several reasons.

First is her careful and thorough research into the details of the everyday lives of the people who lived on a slave-holding farm in the pre- through post-Civil War in Greensboro, Mississippi. I craved the early morning biscuits slathered with apple butter made by Ginny, the housekeeper/slave who was a strong surrogate mother, wise counselor, and courageous friend to Emily. I would have liked to meet Emily, the outspoken daughter of a judge who wanted to abolish slavery and saw to it that the ones he owned were taught to read. Paradox? Yes. Hypocritical? Perhaps. But also a harsh reality in a place and time governed by laws that fiercely protected the institution of slavery.

I wanted to protect Emily from the narrow mindsets and sullen glances of the townspeople who shunned her for her father’s views. Watch the swaying of her green silk dress with its ruffled hooped skirt when she danced around the room with Charles. See the basketsful of fresh-picked turnips, beets, and greens that the indomitable Adeline, mother of Charles and wife of an abusive alcoholic, secretly brought to the family when food was scarce. Share the celebratory feast where Ginny served a “slow-cooked stew of beef and onions; green tomato pie with potato crust, minus the called-for lemon zest; layers of sliced turnips and potatoes baked with cheese: Indian bread: and rice pudding with molasses, flavored with a bit of brandy and the carefully hoarded nutmeg.”

Even if you didn’t know that Diane is a gifted artist as well as writer, you would probably suspect it from her discerning, artistic eye that sees beauty in ordinary things: the tangled limbs of a tree limned against a blue stained-glass sky that reminds Emily of a broken and repaired piece of pottery. A fragment of a quilt used as a potholder.The delicate young violets and pansies dipped in sugar for the children to savor. A small blue feather left by a migrating bunting among the green clover and milkweed of an ungrazed pasture. The Indian summer heat that “rose off the fields in waves of liquid mirage.”

I especially admired the author’s deep compassion  and psychological understanding of her realistic characters. (Diane is, by the way, a minister and doctor of divinity.) Emily, with her forgotten childhood traumas that gave rise to unexplained anxieties, her sheltered innocence, her forthrightness and innate kindness. Ginny’s resilience, strength of character, maternal love, and determination. Benjamin’s pride in his work, respect for his owner, forgiving nature, and love for his son, Lucian. Dr. Charles’s well-intentioned playfulness and love for Emily combined with his cluelessness about how to understand and relate to her. His passion for healing others combined with his womanizing and greedy determination–triggered by his abusive alcoholic father and impoverished childhood–to make something of himself. These are not cardboard figures, but very human, complex, and real. Through it all we watch Emily transform from a brave but naive and vulnerable child into a confident and accepting woman.

Finally, the pacing of this fictional story about a real-life family feud set against the backdrop of the Civil War is well-conceived. Like life, it moves quickly and seamlessly from a tender domestic scene in one moment to images of unspeakable tragedy in the next. From dramatic events and powerful emotions like love, envy, greed, and hatred, to the inescapably depressive aftermath of trauma with its lengthy road to recovery and forgiveness. The realistic development of McPhail’s theme of human prejudice, greed, and resilience, combined with her compassion for her flawed characters, is a major strength. Another is her graceful writing, which manages to convey a maximum of information and meaning with a minimum of carefully-chosen words. In fact, this first novel contains a delicious basketful of strengths.

Congratulations, Diane. You are, indeed, a real writer!

You can learn more about Diane and her book here.

Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at KoboBarnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications, Inc. Her new book, The Soul’s Twins, will be launched next year.

Join 5,847 other subscribers


12 Responses

  1. Thanks Jeanie, sounds like it’s just up my street. I love novels that have a sense of history time and place and the real life stories of those who inhabit those times. It may be a vicarious way of reading and learning about times other than our own, but there is value in putting one’s self in the shoes of the other and walking in them … lovely review thank you …

    1. I agree with you totally. I think that’s the major reason I read everything I read. It helps me to see how others experience life. I like to compare their ways to my own, see if there’s anything I can learn about myself. Thank goodness for books. Glad you liked my review. You’re next! 🙂 My reviews on your books are long overdue! Thanks for being so patient. Soon now…..

  2. When I read I tend to look for character and colour rather than plot…this sounds as if it’s got that in just the right measure.
    Diane sounds like she has the eye for just the right detail.

    1. June 25, 2019 at 1:17 pm e
      Hi Brian. She does. You can check out her art at if you’re interested. Thanks for writing. It’s always lovely to hear from you.

  3. Oh, so happy for you to be able to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature all around your summer home. Wow. What an incredible book review. I felt transported just reading your description of the book. Can’t wait to submerse my soul in my basket-o-books I’m taking to my North Captiva refuge.

  4. Ah, Jen, what an unexpected and pleasurable way to enter the morning. Thank you for your kind words and for your gracious attention to so much detail and research. I am deeply grateful. Thank you.

  5. Well, it’s early and I’ve only had one cup of coffee, Jean. I apologize for the typo, in your name, of all places!

  6. Jeanie ~ It would be great, if in revisiting the harsh realities of slavery, books like these helped to remind us of the ongoing evil in dehumanizing ‘others’ and the good that comes from taking a moral stand in choosing differently ~ which sometimes means making an informed choice *not* to participate in or legitimize systems of oppression.
    Given the role the US continue to play in the exploitation and commodification of human beings for profit throughout the world (something made possible by our wars, regime changes, political interference, capitalism, votes and myths of US “exceptionalism”), some seem to need reminding. You know what they say about history repeating itself.
    I bring this up here because where better to make the connection than on a site dedicated to understanding the deeper layers of the human psyche and unconscious forces that exist in shadow and shape our choices.
    The enslavement of Black Africans in Libya, following the actions of the US there (under Hillary and Obama’s direction), is just one example. There are many others to be found if we’re willing to look.

    1. Exactly so, LB. May we see and seek to abolish the various forms of enslavement that still plague our world today, both within ourselves and around us.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Recent Posts