Tammye Huf’s debut novel A More Perfect Union is a remarkable love story—one inspired by that of her great great grandparents—between an Irish immigrant and a household slave he encounters on a Virginian plantation, and their attempt to overcome every obstacle and prejudice to be together.
Henry O’Toole sails to America in 1848 to escape poverty and famine in Ireland, only to find anti-Irish prejudice awaiting him. Determined never to starve again, he changes his surname to Taylor and heads south to Virginia, seeking work as a travelling blacksmith on the prosperous plantations.
Sarah is a slave. Torn from her family and sold to Jubilee Plantation, she must navigate the hierarchy of her fellow slaves, the whims of her white masters, and now the attentions of the mysterious blacksmith.
Fellow slave Maple oversees the big house with bitterness and bile, and knows that a white man’s attention spells trouble. Given to her half-sister as a wedding present by their white father, she is set on being reunited with her husband and daughter, at any cost.
Henry and Sarah tell us their story in alternating chapters, with Henry opening the account in July 1848. His family’s struggle to overcome the vagaries of an absentee English landlord during the potato famine in Ireland is one which ultimately sees Henry board an immigration ship to America. What he discovers upon his arrival there is yet more poverty, deprivation, and discrimination against the Irish.
Henry’s survival will continue to test his mettle but he is, at least, a free man. When Sarah takes up the story in October, she’s in shackles and at a slave auction, about to be sold away from her family to a Virginian plantation owner. This disparity between Sarah and Henry proves a rare source of contention and, even if not before great harm is done to another, there’s a revelatory moment for Henry when he sees the negative impact any intervention of his can have.
Henry and Sarah’s lives and circumstances aren’t the only ones that Tammye Huf compares and contrasts in A More Perfect Union. By doing so with a range of characters and their experiences, from slave-owners, their overseers and itinerant workers, to household and field slaves, runaways and freedmen, she creates this ripple effect, which cleverly illustrates how everything’s relative. In writing about this hierarchy with all its perceived benevolence, unequal treatment, whims and inconsistencies, cruelty and hypocrisy, she gives us a real sense of plantation life in her vivid depiction of it.
Mapel, another household slave, also narrates some chapters. While she doesn’t welcome Sarah’s arrival and generally comes across as bitter and mean, her behaviour becomes more understandable, as she tells her story. Although it doesn’t excuse the way she takes out her frustration on others, it’s not hard to see how Mapel’s own experience influences and informs her behaviour and I reached a point where I could empathise, if not forgive her.
A More Perfect Union is a captivating and highly-charged love story: that Henry and Sarah try and find a way to be together against all the odds—and laws of the time—clearly demonstrates the depth of their feelings, as well as the trust and belief they have in each other. It’s also a testament to their resilience in the face of poverty, immigration, slavery, discriminatory race laws and racial prejudice. Tammye Huf’s novel is the powerful and moving story of two people who find love and refuse to let it go. I couldn’t help but cheer them on through every stolen moment they shared.
A More Perfect Union by Tammye Huf is published by Myriad Editions. It is available as an ebook or hardback and you can buy it direct from the publisher here. For more on Tammye Huf, check out her Author Website, or you can find her on Instagram or on Twitter.
My thanks to Emma Dowson for sending me a review copy.