Book Review: River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer

River Sing Me Home – Eleanor Shearer (Berkley, 2023)

I received in Advance Uncorrected Proof of this book. All opinions are my own. Publication date: January 31, 2023

They knew what it was to search for something – to be exhausted, bent double by the weight of loss, but somehow still crawling on their knees, hands outstretched, fumbling in the dark to find the pieces of whatever had been shattered

Eleanor Shearer from “River Sing Me Home”

Rachel was born a slave on the Barbados plantation of Providence. One day, the master of the plantation announces that slavery has ended, by proclamation of the king. Yet nothing in the daily lives of Rachel and those around her changes. They must continue in indentured servitude, working without pay under the brutal oversight of their white masters. Slavery has ended and yet Rachel is not free. So she chooses to run.

After Rachel leaves Providence, she decides to find her five children, all taken from her against her will and sold into slavery elsewhere. She begins her search in Bridgetown but it takes her from there deep into the jungle, to other plantations, and across the sea to Trinidad.

Shearer uses the outline of Rachel’s search to explore the stories of many men and women stolen from their homes in Africa and forced to work to their deaths in lands far away. She opens up the stories of recently arrived slaves and those who have lived their whole lives in this inhuman servitude. There are characters who can take advantage of their light skin and there are those who are able to buy the freedom of their loved ones. There are some who fight for freedom and some who give their lives for it. We are shown a glimpse of the Indigenous people of these islands, who are forced further and further away from their land as white colonists encroach their territories. Each character we meet is carrying their own burden, their individual trauma, although many have similar stories.

It’s a powerful book with a lot of overlapping stories but by keeping the focus on Rachel and her quest, Shearer never loses track and the reader doesn’t become overwhelmed. It didn’t occur to me until writing this review but there is very little focus on white characters. They exist of course, primarily as necessary to the plot and as an ever-present danger in the background of all things. But there is no attempt to humanize or soften any of the white characters or offer an explanation of any of their motivations. This is an elevation of Black history and stories and it feels exactly right.

6 thoughts on “Book Review: River Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer”

  1. There’s a book called The Bridge of Beyond by Simone Schwarz-Bart that is very similar in that it focuses on the lives and experiences of Black Caribbean characters without being all that interested in those of the white characters: they exist, but they’re not the point. It’s remarkable how rare that is in fiction, even fiction that deals with this material.

    1. Oh cool, I’ll have to look that up. I didn’t notice it while I was reading but afterward when I was thinking about the characters. I feel like some authors would have felt the need to insert a white character but the book is much stronger and more focused without.

  2. This sounds like a difficult (yet very important) read. I can’t even comprehend the idea of my children being sold, it sounds so inhuman and so awful to even imagine is seems unbearable, and yet it happened over and over again. Still happening, in some cases. For that reason I’m not sure I could even read this book, because being faced with that fact, even in fictional lives is almost soo difficult to handle…

    1. It’s a hard read but it doesn’t dwell too long in the hard scenes so it never felt overwhelming to me. It’s hard to think about where things like this are still happening though.

  3. I haven’t read any books on slavery outside of the U.S., though, and this is tangentially related, the concept of a zombie started in the Caribbean. People didn’t die, they were hypnotized with voodoo and could only follow commands numbly, like a zombie, and were used as slaves.

    I’m glad the author didn’t humanize the slave owners. I always feel gross when I read stories like that, especially because they are in stark contrast to slave narratives (true stories) that I’ve read.

    1. It wasn’t until afterward, when I was writing the review and thinking about the characters that I realized the white characters were all peripheral. It was unfortunately too easy to imagine a different author feeling the need to shoehorn in the white perspective. So I really enjoyed that it didn’t happen here.

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