“The Freedom of Jenny” tells a story of Canadian history that I had never heard before. Jenny is a black slave girl in Missouri, the daughter of two slaves, Hannah and Howard Estes, Jenny grows up dreaming of freedom. She works beside her mother in the house of a white family. Her father works for the opportunity to buy the family’s freedom and move to the free state of California. Freedom in California appears to be something ephemeral and Jenny’s family moves again this time to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. At times a sad story, The Freedom of Jenny is told predominately through the hopeful eyes of a young Jenny.
Julie Burtinshaw based the story on the diary of Sylvia Stark which is held in the Salt Spring Island archives. While reading it, I was conscious of it being a white woman’s retelling of a black woman’s story. I wonder if it is faithful to voice of the freed slave woman. Julie Burtinshaw has carefully written a story which skirts the experiences of the aboriginal people of the lands in question. She has left in musings from Jenny about the nature of the aboriginal people and some expressions of respect for the way of life and knowledge of the aboriginal inhabitants encountered by the slave family in their journey. These hints about the aboriginal people and their stories leave openings for the reader to imagine this other point of view of the experience told in the novel. Not an opening given to the white slave owner by the way.
This engaging novel would suit discussions on history, slavery, freedom, British Columbia, California, American Civil War, Canadian history.