In ABRAHAM'S WELL, Christy Award-winning author Sharon Ewell Foster returns to her best style of work: historical fiction focusing on racial prejudice --- the same genre she used in her debut novel, PASSING BY SAMARIA. And an engrossing bit of history this is…
Told in first person narrative by Armentia, a Black Cherokee, the story depicts the lives of mixed race African Americans-Native Americans who were cheated of their land and forced to journey from North Carolina along the Trail of Tears to modern-day Oklahoma. Some of these African Americans were free and others were slaves, a little known piece of history.
Beginning with her childhood, Armentia slowly unfolds the story of the congenial relationship her family had with their owners of mixed white and Cherokee blood, Mama Emma and Papa. Racial prejudice notes are struck from the earliest pages, as Armentia confesses that she believed she was better than other Blacks "because our people were Cherokee…I guess that's just human, everybody needs to feel better than somebody."
When Abraham is sold after taking the blame for Armentia's misdeeds, her world begins to unravel. Then the missionaries come, begging them to move west of the Mississippi River, where there would be "no White men to get in your way." They firmly refuse. The reader doubtlessly knows the results even before turning the pages, but the eviction is still shocking when it comes. Believably, Armentia recounts: "We walked one thousand miles. Maybe one out of every four of us died. It was hard to find a family that didn't lose at least one. It is a miracle that most of us made it." These stark, flat sentences bring home the despair of those on the forced march.
Less believable is that the friendly, nurturing Mama Emma and Papa turn so quickly harsh in their treatment of Armentia and her family, including Armentia's beloved older brother Abraham. The contrast between the early pages, where Armentia is treated like a beloved daughter, and the later pages, where she is sold for a load of bricks, could have benefited from more transition.
Tragic event after horrible incident occur, including Armentia's multiple rapes at the hands of slave owners even as a child and the loss of many of her loved ones. Throughout her hardscrabble existence, Armentia never loses hope that someday she will, as her father always promised her, own her own land and a well.
The point of view, although mostly Armentia's, shifts occasionally to tell the story from Abraham's perspective. There are some beautiful foreshadowing passages like this that open the first chapter: "In the East, it is the movement of the Atlantic waters that brings land storms. Black, heavy clouds thrown about by the ocean sweep in and overtake the sun, darkening the skies….But here in the West, you can see storms coming from far off, rolling in gray and angry, fighting with the dust. I sit on my porch, here, and watch them."
What makes the fictional narrative vibrate with authenticity is that it is grounded in Foster's own research into her family tree, in which she discovers a combination of a legacy of Cherokee lineage, Navajo cultural exposure and African American ancestry.
This historical tale is one of Foster's best efforts, if not her best, and deserves a wide reading audience.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on November 1, 2006