Two unforgettable women—one just beginning a journey of reckoning and self-discovery and the other completing her life’s last vital act—find their fates intertwined in this intricately plotted and deeply researched debut novel, set at terminus of the Underground Railroad.
In the 1800s in Dunmore, a Canadian town populated by refugees fleeing slavery at the height of the Underground Railroad, young Lensinda works as a maid for a veteran of the War of 1812 and founder of one of the first Black newspapers—with aspirations to become a journalist herself. One night, a neighboring farmer summons Lensinda when a slave hunter is shot dead on his land by Cash, an old refugee woman. The farmer urges Lensinda to gather testimony from Cash before the woman is condemned.
Eager to prove her skill, sure of her worldliness and her instincts, and confident she can tackle such a sensitive task under pressure, Lensinda slips into the jail where Cash is being held. But the old woman doesn’t want to confess—instead she proposes a barter: a story for a story. Lensinda agrees and in swapping life stories learns the interwoven history of America and Canada; of the Indigenous people from both places and the enslaved Black men and women brought to North America; of the patriots and the outlaws equally cast as second-class citizens.
As Cash’s time runs out, Lensinda realizes she knows far less than she believed—not just about the complicated tapestry of her people’s ancestry but about her family history as well. Moving along the path of the Underground Railroad from Virginia to Kentucky, to the backroom Black militias of Detroit, through the territory of the Ojibwe nation, and north into the Owen Sound, In the Upper Country weaves together unlikely stories of love, survival, and familial upheaval that map the interconnected history of the peoples of North America in an entirely new and resonant way.