BOOK "Wissahickon Souls: A Wissahickon Creek Story"
Possibilities Publishing 2014
346 pp. Fiction
The subtitle "A Wissahickon Creek Story" sets the scene for the story of the life of Claire Penniman, a black woman born free in 1806. The story is fiction, but it is based on historical research, and the Wissahickon still flows today in the Germantown and Philadelphia areas of Pennsylvania ( see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wissahickon_Creek). An excursion seems in order after reading this book.
The author, PJ Devlin, researched the lives of black and white Philadelphians in the early 19th century before writing. She recalled fondly her childhood recollections of a local farm and playing along the creek. This comes through vividly in her story about Claire, who enjoyed playing in and walking along the creek. I wanted to explore the creek, to feel the wet stones under my feet and the cool water rushing over them.
Claire Penniman was indentured to a white farm family from a very young age through age 16. Her parents had decided that her life would be better--she would get decent food and shelter--if she lived as a servant on the farm. Her parents were hard-working people whose ancestors had been acquainted with William Penn. Yet as blacks, their options to succeed were limited.
Precocious Claire did far more than her share of chores for her masters, but she was known as one with a wild streak, an independent young person who spoke their mind. Children were not children in these times; they were people expected to earn their own way. She did so, without complaint.
She fell in love with the son of the owner of the farm, and his family did not condone their eventual interracial marriage. After deep thought on the subject, Claire and her husband moved to Haiti, which welcomed American blacks. Their life was difficult, but they persevered. They raised two children, one white and fair-haired like his father, the other dark. Claire's anguish during her daily travails wrenches the heart of any mother.
PJ Devlin is a skillful writer. Halfway through, I could not put the book down--I cared so much about Claire and was cheering for her to prevail over her hardships.
The story ends with the reader wondering what the rest of young Claire's life will be like. Is a sequel in the making? One can hope so.
(Sue Kovach Shuman)