The Gospel Truth (2015), by Caroline Pignat

This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.3.

Pignat - Gospel TruthI must admit to having read no other verse novel, so I am not sure if it is the genre or Caroline Pignat’s particularly effective use of it that renders The Gospel Truth so haunting and so captivating. Phoebe’s story is told in her voice and the voices of those around her; the several voices reflect vastly differing perspectives on slavery on an 1858 Virginia tobacco plantation. The language is not so poetic as to be hard to parse; while the narrative flows smoothly, it is rich with moments of poetic beauty, “the best words in their best order” (Coleridge).

Phoebe is owned by the Master’s daughter, Tessa. Phoebe sits in on Tessa’s lessons, and is given Tessa’s hand-me-downs (including a scribbler), and so teaches herself rudimentary reading and writing. In 1858, teaching a slave to read or write was a punishable offence, for it might lead exactly where Phoebe ends up going…

Phoebe’s life is relatively stable—she serves Tessa; helps the cook, Bea, in the kitchen; and enjoys time with Shadrach, whose attentions are obvious and not unwelcome. Enter “The Birdman,” Dr. Ross Bergman, whose character is based on the Canadian physician, naturalist, and abolitionist, Alexander Milton Ross, who also appears (as himself) in Barbara Smucker’s well-known Underground to Canada (1977). Dr. Bergman is a “watcher,” like Phoebe herself, but Phoebe is not sure why it is he is watching her, particularly. Readers, too, wonder, for the lyric minimalism of the Pignat’s narrative shows us a multitude of truths, each partially masked by the internal voices that tell their stories as if to themselves. One of the refreshing strengths of Pignat’s writing is just this: the stories are being told, but they are not told to the reader. We feel as if we are eavesdropping on the candid thoughts of the characters as they puzzle out their lives. We learn that Phoebe is learning to read to try to sneak a peek at the Master’s ledger and find out to whom her mother was sold; we learn that Shad resents his brother Will’s attempts to escape, which he sees as desertion; we learn of the Master’s concern over financial affairs, despite external appearances; we learn that Dr. Bergman does want something from Phoebe… but we are not told initially what that is. Ultimately, with his help, Phoebe learns that

It takes courage
to see truths
that we’d rather not.

It takes courage
to speak up
when the way things is,
ain’t the way they should be.

It takes courage
to go beyond what you know
to the places you don’t. (315)

We watch as Phoebe reaches inside herself for that courage, and in the end finds it.

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