Historically, The Purchase is fascinating as it combines several different elements of the country’s unique background. Daniel’s world is as unfamiliar to him as it is to modern readers, but it is Ms. Spalding’s succinct descriptions that allow readers to adapt and learn about this unfamiliar setting and lifestyle. The vastness of the world without towns, roads, or even neighbors plays in stark contrast to Daniel’s former life among the Quakers. The sheer number of issues Daniel faces upon his arrival at his new homestead emphasizes those differences. It is a world that is simultaneously very broad and yet very narrow and intriguing in both its possibilities and its limitations.
Daniel’s adoption of his new location provides readers with plenty of opportunities to learn about life on the Kentucky frontier and the hard-scrabble life that accompanies it. Surprisingly, Daniel has a fairly large number of neighbors, so the isolation that one associates with pioneering is not quite the issue it might have been. Then again, it is the interactions with these neighbors that cause a majority of the tension. Alongside frontier living is the element of slavery. Of particular interest is the idea that most of Daniel’s neighbors own slaves because of necessity and not because of any firm belief in the practice. With few inhabitants in the area and a constant battle for survival against a wilderness that does not want to be tamed, one or two slaves can make all the difference between eking out a living or total failure. While there is no excuse for the enslavement of any human, Ms. Spalding does an excellent job showing how easy it is for someone to become inured to the practice and even become involved in it in some fashion.
While the story revolves around Daniel Dickinson, he is more anti-hero than hero. He is stubborn, too passive in an aggressive environment, convinced of his superior intelligence among his family and neighbors, and incapable of compromise. Daniel’s Quaker beliefs clash with the unwritten rules of life on the frontier, not to mention the abolitionist tenets of the Quaker faith up against the nonchalant acceptance of the institution among Daniel’s new peers. He may accidentally purchase Onesimus and keep him as a slave, but his adamant insistence on maintaining all aspects of his belief system provides huge wells of guilt that keep him weak in a world where the weak just cannot survive. The rest of the characters are equally flawed and oh-so-very human. Their realistic attributes will generate a myriad of emotions within a reader – everything from frustration to disgust to pride to resignation – as they all make good and very poor choices that will continue to haunt them all.
While a reader can guess what some of the inevitable clashes will be from Daniel’s accidental purchase of Onesimus, it is the surprising arcs the story takes that keeps a reader’s interest. The compromise of Daniel’s beliefs so early in the story results in a profound stubbornness that does more harm than good. Combined with his Quaker passivity, the two traits, along with his initial actions upon arrival in the country, do more to cause the resultant scenes than anything else. Onesimus is a mere victim of Daniel’s belief system.
Given its subject matter, The Purchase is not the cheeriest of novels. The first-person account of slavery is as rough and disturbing as one would expect, while the characters and all their faults do little to nothing to ease a reader’s angst. Throughout the story, the overwhelming feelings of distress among all the characters, free and slave, serve to emphasize the arduousness of life on the frontier. Much like its frontier setting, it is stark and brutal and not for the easily distressed.