The Abolitionist’s Daughter is a vividly rendered, culturally important and unexpectedly personal debut novel by Diane C. McPhail. Set in Mississippi during the violent turmoil leading up to and just after the Civil War, The Abolitionist’s Daughter illuminates a corner of Southern history that’s little-known and rarely glimpsed: the experiences and struggles of those openly opposed to slavery in a time and place when the freeing of slaves was illegal, and the suggestion of it potentially fatal. At the novel’s heart are three extraordinary women who refuse to compromise what they know to be right as they negotiate the devastations of war, betrayal, and a world depleted by the conflict of men: Emily, the daughter of an abolitionist; Ginny, a slave who was illegally educated alongside Emily; and Adeline, the mother of Emily’s husband.
The historical inspiration for The Abolitionist’s Daughter is nearly as astonishing as the novel itself. In part, it is based on a legendary feud between two families—the Edwards and the Grays—in Webster County, Mississippi. Born in Jackson and raised on the Mississippi Delta, Diane McPhail grew up hearing stories about the violent clash that would become the basis for her novel. But it wasn’t until Diane McPhail was in her 40s that she learned about the life of her great-grandmother, Mary Ellen Edwards Gray Nelson, and her much more personal connection to this history. Born in 1840, she was a woman in Webster County, Mississippi, who stood up for what was right in the face of devastating loss, and her legacy is woven into the protagonist of The Abolitionist’s Daughter.
Summary: The Abolitionist’s Daughter
On a Mississippi morning in 1859, Emily Matthews begs her father to save a slave, Nathan, about to be auctioned away from his family. Judge Matthews is an abolitionist who runs an illegal school for his slaves, hoping to eventually set them free. One slave, a woman named Ginny, has become Emily’s companion and often her conscience—and understands all too well the hazards an educated slave must face. Yet even Ginny could not predict the tangled, tragic string of events set in motion as Nathan’s family arrives at the Matthews farm.
A young doctor, Charles Slate, tends to injured Nathan and begins to court Emily, finally persuading her to become his wife. But their union is disrupted by a fatal clash and a lie that will tear two families apart. As Civil War erupts, Emily, Ginny, and Emily’s stoic mother-in-law, Adeline, each face devastating losses. Emily—sheltered all her life—is especially unprepared for the hardships to come. Struggling to survive in this raw, shifting new world, Emily will discover untapped inner strength, an unlikely love, and the courage to confront deep, painful truths.
In the tradition of Cold Mountain, The Abolitionist’s Daughter eschews stereotypes of the Civil War South, instead weaving an intricate and unforgettable story of survival, loyalty, hope, and redemption.
Praise for The Abolitionist’s Daughter
“Inspired by a real-life feud between two Mississippi families, McPhail’s first novel sheds light on an often-unrecognized part of Civil War history, the Southern abolitionist movement…For fans of Charles Frazier’s enduring Cold Mountain.”–Booklist
“A contender, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched story…as good as it deserves to be.”– Jacquelyn Mitchard, New York Times best-selling author
“Complex, vivid, and emotionally engaging. This is a story of harsh realities written with a tenderness that shines through and honors the account of one woman’s struggle to overcome her society’s rules and her circumstances in the face of inconceivable devastation.”–Carol E. Anderson, author of You Can’t Buy Love Like That
“Diane McPhail tells a dark tale, yet it’s laced with lyricism and compassion. This is a powerful, imaginative, captivating book—I’d say, even urgent, considering the time we find ourselves in now.”–Judy Goldman, author of Together
“A tender, sparkling debut that bears gentle witness to the abominations of slavery and oppression while heralding the grace, power and necessity of righting wrongs and choosing love.”–Ethel Rohan, author of The Weight of Him
“The Abolitionist’s Daughter brings to light the tragic yet inevitable entanglements of slavery, as ultimately manifested in the Civil War. The complications of race, division, and hate in this epic novel are still with us today and necessary to contemplate; The Abolitionist’s Daughter is Gone with the Wind for the 21st Century.”–Brian Railsback, author of The Darkest Clearing
“The dialogue, scenery, and daily routines of the characters in McPhail’s novel, as well as the state of mind of the country during one of the most turbulent times in history, is quickly brought to life. This is an absorbing story sure to capture the hearts of historical fiction fans who appreciate a uniquely told tale of those willing to defy the status quo with bravery and steadfastness.”–The New York Journal of Books