Download high-resolution image
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00

In the Upper Country

A Novel

Author Kai Thomas
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00
Audiobook Download
On sale Jan 10, 2023 | 9 Hours and 47 Minutes | 978-0-593-62901-7
NATIONAL BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE 2023 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Shortlisted for the 2023 Governor General's Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2023 Amazon Canada First Novel Award

Longlisted for the 2024 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Award

The fates of two unforgettable women—one just beginning a journey of reckoning and self-discovery and the other completing her life's last vital act—intertwine in this sweeping, deeply researched debut set in the Black communities of Ontario that were the last stop on the Underground Railroad.


Young Lensinda Martin is a protegee of a crusading Black journalist in mid-18th century southwestern Ontario, finding a home in a community founded by refugees from the slave-owning states of the American south—whose agents do not always stay on their side of the border.
 
One night, a neighbouring farmer summons Lensinda after a slave hunter is shot dead on his land by an old woman recently arrived via the Underground Railroad. When the old woman, whose name is Cash, refuses to flee before the authorities arrive, the farmer urges Lensinda to gather testimony from her before Cash is condemned.
 
But Cash doesn't want to confess. Instead she proposes a barter: a story for a story. And so begins an extraordinary exchange of tales that reveal the interwoven history of Canada and the United States; of Indigenous peoples from a wide swath of what is called North America and of the Black men and women brought here into slavery and their free descendents on both sides of the border.
 
As Cash's time runs out, Lensinda realizes she knows far less than she believed not only about the complicated tapestry of her nation, but also of her own family history. And it seems that Cash may carry a secret that could shape Lensinda's destiny.
 
Sweeping along the path of the Underground Railroad from the southern States to Canada, through the lands of Indigenous nations around the Great Lakes, to the Black communities of southern Ontario, 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.
Chapter I

Dunmore, July 1859

It was dusk, and I muttered curses to myself as I made my way down the muddy green lane. Just minutes earlier, it seemed, I'd been tired and keen to finish my day with some stew and warm bread; some idle chitchat in the rocking chair, perhaps. Yet instead there I was, trodding like a fool through the mire and the quickening dark.

Mine was an unusual profession for a young woman. In Spancel Narrows, where I was born, there was a kind old bachelor named Samuel Frost, who loved hosting his coloured neighbours; many a night we brought our suppers down to his estate, dined at his great table, and then sat at the hearth listening to the old-timers. And for years, three mornings every week, my mother would hurry me along through the woods, and I would join Frost in his study while she cooked and cleaned. There, I left behind the paltry education of the crowded schoolhouse, and under his careful tutelage I learned properly to read, write, and tally accounts. I didn't realize until many years later-until I got to Dunmore, in fact-what a gift he and my mother had given me.

His teaching gave me sovereignty in my work. My employer, Arabella, would be off for days to her meetings and speaking engagements with the True Bands and the congregations as far off as Toronto; as far off as New York even. After a while it was decided I would stay at the house. There were five others there when Arabella was gone. Her brother worked days in the swamp, and he had three young children to whom he had the will, if not the time, to attend. The children's mother had not survived their escape. Their grandmother Velora used to look after the young ones, but she had begun to lose her hold on memory. She took to hiding food in corners and under loose floorboards, and dinner wouldn't be made when the brother came home from the swamp and the children from school. They would smell the food days later when it began to rot, and the children would hold their noses at one another and titter about "Granny's stinkers." Arabella would quell any such teasing if she heard it. She understood that Velora's forgotten caches were the resurfacing of an old practice: as a young slave woman she'd made a habit of secreting away meat and provisions for her family in the field.

As Arabella will often remind me, she considered me sent from above-even though my arrival in Dunmore was thought to be strange (for I came from the north when all others came southerly). Stranger still that I could read and write better than most men, coloured or white.

"I asked the Lord for a man and he gave me a hand," she would say, and wink.

So it was that I came to tend the Brimmer household. And when Arabella returned from sojourning, her shoulders struggling to remain upright, we would spend hours by the fire, talking low beneath the snores of the household and the meandering footsteps of Velora. We'd crush mint in jars of tavern moonshine and Arabella would recline on her chair and rub the heels of her hands into her temples and burrow her fingers into her hair. She would speak quietly; hushed musings interrupted by her chuckles and sighs. I would listen. I considered these soft ramblings the addenda to her notes detailing the struggles of fugitives, the battles of abolitionists, and the news from lands near and far.

And after a while, invariably, she would give me a look-half grimace, half weary smile. "It's no easy task," she would say. "No easy task to show the world our worth."

I listened and I wrote. The next day I would look to my scribbles and I would write again. When I was done I would send my parcel to the editor in Windsor to be compiled with the articles from other contributors, and the following week we would see the newspaper in the store, or better, clutched in the hands of men and women squinting beneath caps and brightly hued head wraps, spelling out words as they learned to be free men.

By Arabella's account, sales for The Coloured Canadian began as a pittance; like most small newspapers, it seemed unlikely that the endeavour would survive. But by the time I arrived in Dunmore, the paper was becoming increasingly profitable. Whether this was due to donations from wealthy abolitionists or to the swelling ranks of fugitives eager to read, I did not inquire, nor did I care. She had enough to pay me well; enough too to give generously to the True Band of the church, which served as Dunmore's hub for the Underground Railroad. She never flaunted this generosity, but it was known, and she was adored for it. At True Band events, new and old arrivals to Dunmore were reminded of that special miracle whereby a slave with nothing in the world could become a man with a house, food for the winter, and work; there was always work hewing and digging in the swamp, and as a government contract this earned a man more money in a month than he had seen in his life and for labour that wasn't half as grueling as what he was used to. What a feeling, to work in free country; to move to the harmonizing rumble and trill of voices, and to see faces unified in the sweat and toil, not of terror, but of purpose.

So it was my lot as Arabella's hand that we came to need each other. She laboured tediously over writing. She worried too much about how her words would sound once read aloud, and whether people would think what she meant for them to think. I, on the other hand, did not have the virtue to care what people thought, nor the will to ask. That was Arabella's gift. She had the touch. The softening of the brow that said: I know what you have lived, and your words are sacred to me. Her high African cheekbones reminded folk of every slave woman who had ever inspired a dream of dignity in them. I, on the other hand, with my applewood skin, saucy tongue, and warring glares, tended to inspire at best a vengeful desire, and at worst, fragile condescension. All this was fine by me. I didn't think much of zeal, for I had never seen it last. I was content to be the unchurched high yellow girl who tends the Brimmer house, and no one quite knows where she comes from (though all know what is implied in that lack of knowledge), but she is there, and Arabella is probably looking out for the poor, bush-wild thing. And so I minded my household tasks. I would cook and clean until I could not put off the writing any longer, and then I would take up my station in the study.

Additionally, not as a general practice but as peculiar occasion would have it, I would be called upon to heal. Mostly this meant preparing poke salad for a child in need of deworming, or a brew of scouring rush for old folk who complained of weak bones. There were several women and men in Dunmore who were root doctors with knowledge of potions as well as poisons, so I was not overly unique. But few solicited me openly, for although Dunmore was known as the witch town, it tried awfully hard not to be. Here and there I tended more serious wounds: I had once reset and splinted the broken leg of a child who suffered a kick from a mule; twice I had stitched the cut wounds of drunken men who had brawled outside the tavern; and another time I had used pipe smoke of mullein and hops to calm a young woman who had been found screaming like a banshee in the swamp.

And so I was known, which brings me back to the business that had me scrambling down the wretched green lane. It was dusk, as I said. And I had been sent for. Young Jim burst into the house after supper, as I was reading over Arabella's latest batch of notes.

"Lensinda!" said Jim as he rushed into the study, not even bothering to remove his shoes or properly close the front door, and the mosquitoes were always thick and fierce as the sun went down. I glared at him for that, and saw him wither, grasping nervously at his long chest. He was not yet a man, and I was normally quite fond of him, as most were; he was uncommonly bright and sober for his age, albeit a bit daft to household decency.

"There's a man," he blurted. "There's a man shot in the green lane."

I raised my eyebrows. We had heard two shots, about half an hour past. Unusual to hear gunfire so close, but not exceedingly unusual, as there were always people hungry for wildfowl. I capped my ink and rose to gather my things.

"Shut the door, Jim," I said to him.

"Simeon says to come, and quick." He spoke with hushed urgency as he fumbled at the threshold of the study. Fanny, the youngest Brimmer child, had come from the living room to stand and look into the study, cocking her head to one side.

"The front door, Jim," I said curtly, and he jumped and scurried past Fanny to the swinging front door and closed it, keeping his hand on it.

"I'm coming," I reassured him, "but no need to let the gallinippers eat the house alive."

I grabbed my pouch and went to the door, patting the silent Fanny on the shoulder as I passed her. I reached for my cloak. It was July, and the cloak would be hot despite the setting of the sun, but still a worthwhile protection from the bugs.

Jim waited with one hand on the doorknob, skittish, not meeting my eyes. I moved quickly but methodically, stooping to tie my boots tight.

I felt Jim's urgency, but I had questions that I could not put off, even as we made our way briskly out of the house and into the sounds of the evening on the village lane: the crickets, the clatter of dishes in washbasins, and music (someone was plucking up a banjo and moaning in harmony, a woman's voice trilling along and then laughing).

"Who is this man, Jim?" I asked, trotting to keep up with his long stride.

"I don't know," he said, and he pulled at his collar and glanced at the houses on either side of the lane.

"A man," he said quietly. "A white man who rode in with an Indian."

It took a moment for this to sink in before I stopped straight in my path. Jim was too preoccupied to notice, and for a moment I watched his back as my mind lurched over this strange piece of news.

"Boy!" I said, and Jim turned around, his face contorted.

"Don't yell so loud; Simeon says-"

I planted my feet in the soft ground. "Jim, I will raise all hell right here in front of your mama house if you don't tell me what you fetching me for."

"Sinda, I got to go, Simeon-"

He cut himself short when he caught my glare.

"Please," he said, softly now, his eyes darting around the lane again. The twang of the banjo kept on, and more sounds of supper joined in: chatter, water being drawn from a barrel, and in the slight distance, the bark and howl of the dogs. Near us, an old woman sat on a front porch, her face wreathed in smoke from a long pipe. It was loud enough, but the lanes of Dunmore were always watching, always listening. Jim had been directed to be discreet, and if he had cause for discretion, then this was indeed the worst place to talk.

"Please," he said again, with a pained expression. "In the livery," he whispered. And he tilted his head in the direction of the stable, beside the tavern on the main road.

I squinted a warning look at him and saw him flinch. He had been warned of me. Good, I thought. And I commenced to walk briskly to the stable. Jim breathed a sigh of relief and hurried alongside me.

Simeon was perhaps the only man for whom I would have come when called, especially under such dubious circumstances. And what could be more suspect? Granted, it was not uncommon for either whites or Indians to come through Dunmore. Indian men traded game meats, basketry, and leather goods for tools at the forge or drink from the tavern. A woman had once made an appearance to search out and shame the Negro father of her children in front of the man's wife and family-at congregation, no less, much to the everlasting horror and titillation of the churchgoing folk. But none of this spoke to the possibility of a white man and an Indian together; I could not find the logic of it. Perhaps the white man was a missionary on his way to the nearest Indian village. And the Indian himself-a protégé? But who in all hell would shoot a missionary? And what a bloody mess the whole town would be in if that were the case. I quickened my step.

The tavern was a two-story frame building clad in grey cedar that glowed with light from the ground level and hummed with some chatter. Swamp crew workers without wives dined here. Jim and I skirted the tavern and went into the stable. The stable boy was nowhere in sight; the rascal had probably run off to see his sweetheart in the woods, or to get a hot supper from his mother down the lane. We entered and went to Simeon's quarter horse. She was a big blue-roan whose haunch shivered as we neared. She looked at me with a large, warm eye, and I put my hand out to meet her muzzle.

"Tell me what you know," I said to Jim as he set about saddling the horse.

Jim was deft and quick in his movements as he fastened the girth. Still, I could hear the nervous quaver in his voice.

"Round end of day," he began in a near breathless whisper, "this white man and Indian ride right up to the farm."

"Did anyone else see them?" I asked.

"Probably," said Jim, "but if they did they maybe figured they was just passing through town."

He glanced at me warily, and I encouraged him with a nod. He went on:

"Me and the lads were out in the field digging drainage pipe, when the two of them ride up to the house. We seen they seen us. Didn't think much of it-figured they were old friends of Simeon. However, soon after, we start to get the feeling-well, Weems start to get the feeling that something ain't right. Can't quite say what it is, though he never can put words to it, but he almost always is right. Kept looking over his shoulder at the house until Humphrey and me start to feel the hair rise on our necks too. It was too quiet. But none of us rightly knew how to act, except to keep working till sundown, as we usually do. And so we did. And just as we was heading back to wash up, we notice a commotion by the front porch. Someone was running into the corn, and we start to hurrying across the field to see what was the matter. And then bam! One shot go off, and we stop and crouch. But we see Cassi run into the house and come out holding that rifle and we decide we got to at least run to her. Sure enough, bam! Another shot, from the corn. And we reach the porch and Cassi tell us we must go find Simeon, she afraid he might get shot. And we start to hollerin' for Sim, and rushing into the corn to find him. Finally we see some movement in the stalks and come upon him and he standing there and at his feet the white man just tumbling about on the ground in his own blood."
  • WINNER | 2023
    Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
  • FINALIST | 2023
    Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
Finalist for the 2023 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Praise for In the Upper Country

"Kai Thomas' In the Upper Country is a sweeping epic that imagines all the ways our ancestors tried to get free. This is an exciting new voice in fiction, as interested in the complexities of land and belonging as in the vagaries of human love and connection." 
—Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of Libertie
 
"Stories within stories; until I read them, I hadn't realised these are ones I'd long been wanting, needing even. In this remarkable debut, Kai Thomas fills out the picture of a place, a time, peoples and their relationships, all previously neglected in the day-to-day unfolding of the nations. His immensely compelling details, and a host of voices so well-wrought you can see and hear the speakers long after you've finished reading, will leave you eager to see what he'll do next."
—Shani Mootoo, author of Polar Vortex

"In the Upper Country is not only fiction alive with history; it is historicIn the Upper Country reminds me—yes—of Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes and Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. And practically every page turns up a sentence or a phrase that could have been penned by Toni Morrison or James Baldwin… a gift of lyric genius to enthrall all—and to educate Afro-Métis people about the love and courage that enabled their creation."
—George Elliott Clarke, Author of Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir

"Canadian history has long oppressed and neglected the Black and Indigenous stories at the foundation of the society that now exists here. That systemic erasure has deprived generations of Canadians the opportunity to learn about the historic kinship between Black and Indigenous peoples. But now, in the spirit of storytelling that has helped these cultures survive despite the horrors of history, a tremendous novel has emerged to fill that void. In the Upper Country enlightens and empowers in a way few other literary sagas can, by humanizing people who have long been historical footnotes and bringing their stories to the centre. Kai Thomas is a visionary, an advocate, and overall a groundbreaking storytelling voice who has now contributed a classic to this country’s canon. This novel will resonate for generations to come."
Waubgeshig Rice, bestselling author of Moon of the Crusted Snow

“In [In the Upper Country], Thomas makes superb use of [the tale for a tale] framework, with the stories building upon one another until they reach a surprising and satisfying conclusion…Thomas uses evocative detail and immersive description to explore slavery in Canada, a country that has been mythologized as an escape from the institution…[In the Upper Country] is a testament to the power of story and the veneration of those whose tales are often forgotten in mainstream media.”
—New York Times Book Review

“Thomas’s mesmerizing debut explores freedom, family, and the interconnections between white, Black, and Indigenous communities in 1859 Canada….Thomas amplifies the women’s stories with excerpts from a collection of enslaved people’s narratives, while stories of Black Canadians during the War of 1812; and the American enslaved people who settled Dunmore add to the vivid tapestry. At once intimate and majestic, Thomas’s ambitious work heralds a bright new voice.” 
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The harshly real and the fantastic mingle in ways that recall Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. What’s most impressive is Thomas’ imaginative power; sure-handed, often lyrical prose; and strong, complex, resilient women. An exceptional work that mines a rich historical vein."
—Kirkus Reviews
(starred review)

"This fascinating series of stories within stories reflects the fragmentary history of African and Indigenous people experiencing the effects of enslavement, particularly from a Canadian perspective. Engrossing and intensely readable, this book represents just the beginning of a larger narrative, with many chapters yet to be told; very highly recommended."
Library Journal

© Brooke Bridges
KAI THOMAS is a writer, carpenter, and land steward. He is Afro-Canadian, born and raised in Ottawa, descended from Trinidad and the British Isles. In the Upper Country is his first novel. View titles by Kai Thomas

About

NATIONAL BESTSELLER
WINNER OF THE 2023 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Shortlisted for the 2023 Governor General's Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2023 Amazon Canada First Novel Award

Longlisted for the 2024 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Award

The fates of two unforgettable women—one just beginning a journey of reckoning and self-discovery and the other completing her life's last vital act—intertwine in this sweeping, deeply researched debut set in the Black communities of Ontario that were the last stop on the Underground Railroad.


Young Lensinda Martin is a protegee of a crusading Black journalist in mid-18th century southwestern Ontario, finding a home in a community founded by refugees from the slave-owning states of the American south—whose agents do not always stay on their side of the border.
 
One night, a neighbouring farmer summons Lensinda after a slave hunter is shot dead on his land by an old woman recently arrived via the Underground Railroad. When the old woman, whose name is Cash, refuses to flee before the authorities arrive, the farmer urges Lensinda to gather testimony from her before Cash is condemned.
 
But Cash doesn't want to confess. Instead she proposes a barter: a story for a story. And so begins an extraordinary exchange of tales that reveal the interwoven history of Canada and the United States; of Indigenous peoples from a wide swath of what is called North America and of the Black men and women brought here into slavery and their free descendents on both sides of the border.
 
As Cash's time runs out, Lensinda realizes she knows far less than she believed not only about the complicated tapestry of her nation, but also of her own family history. And it seems that Cash may carry a secret that could shape Lensinda's destiny.
 
Sweeping along the path of the Underground Railroad from the southern States to Canada, through the lands of Indigenous nations around the Great Lakes, to the Black communities of southern Ontario, 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.

Excerpt

Chapter I

Dunmore, July 1859

It was dusk, and I muttered curses to myself as I made my way down the muddy green lane. Just minutes earlier, it seemed, I'd been tired and keen to finish my day with some stew and warm bread; some idle chitchat in the rocking chair, perhaps. Yet instead there I was, trodding like a fool through the mire and the quickening dark.

Mine was an unusual profession for a young woman. In Spancel Narrows, where I was born, there was a kind old bachelor named Samuel Frost, who loved hosting his coloured neighbours; many a night we brought our suppers down to his estate, dined at his great table, and then sat at the hearth listening to the old-timers. And for years, three mornings every week, my mother would hurry me along through the woods, and I would join Frost in his study while she cooked and cleaned. There, I left behind the paltry education of the crowded schoolhouse, and under his careful tutelage I learned properly to read, write, and tally accounts. I didn't realize until many years later-until I got to Dunmore, in fact-what a gift he and my mother had given me.

His teaching gave me sovereignty in my work. My employer, Arabella, would be off for days to her meetings and speaking engagements with the True Bands and the congregations as far off as Toronto; as far off as New York even. After a while it was decided I would stay at the house. There were five others there when Arabella was gone. Her brother worked days in the swamp, and he had three young children to whom he had the will, if not the time, to attend. The children's mother had not survived their escape. Their grandmother Velora used to look after the young ones, but she had begun to lose her hold on memory. She took to hiding food in corners and under loose floorboards, and dinner wouldn't be made when the brother came home from the swamp and the children from school. They would smell the food days later when it began to rot, and the children would hold their noses at one another and titter about "Granny's stinkers." Arabella would quell any such teasing if she heard it. She understood that Velora's forgotten caches were the resurfacing of an old practice: as a young slave woman she'd made a habit of secreting away meat and provisions for her family in the field.

As Arabella will often remind me, she considered me sent from above-even though my arrival in Dunmore was thought to be strange (for I came from the north when all others came southerly). Stranger still that I could read and write better than most men, coloured or white.

"I asked the Lord for a man and he gave me a hand," she would say, and wink.

So it was that I came to tend the Brimmer household. And when Arabella returned from sojourning, her shoulders struggling to remain upright, we would spend hours by the fire, talking low beneath the snores of the household and the meandering footsteps of Velora. We'd crush mint in jars of tavern moonshine and Arabella would recline on her chair and rub the heels of her hands into her temples and burrow her fingers into her hair. She would speak quietly; hushed musings interrupted by her chuckles and sighs. I would listen. I considered these soft ramblings the addenda to her notes detailing the struggles of fugitives, the battles of abolitionists, and the news from lands near and far.

And after a while, invariably, she would give me a look-half grimace, half weary smile. "It's no easy task," she would say. "No easy task to show the world our worth."

I listened and I wrote. The next day I would look to my scribbles and I would write again. When I was done I would send my parcel to the editor in Windsor to be compiled with the articles from other contributors, and the following week we would see the newspaper in the store, or better, clutched in the hands of men and women squinting beneath caps and brightly hued head wraps, spelling out words as they learned to be free men.

By Arabella's account, sales for The Coloured Canadian began as a pittance; like most small newspapers, it seemed unlikely that the endeavour would survive. But by the time I arrived in Dunmore, the paper was becoming increasingly profitable. Whether this was due to donations from wealthy abolitionists or to the swelling ranks of fugitives eager to read, I did not inquire, nor did I care. She had enough to pay me well; enough too to give generously to the True Band of the church, which served as Dunmore's hub for the Underground Railroad. She never flaunted this generosity, but it was known, and she was adored for it. At True Band events, new and old arrivals to Dunmore were reminded of that special miracle whereby a slave with nothing in the world could become a man with a house, food for the winter, and work; there was always work hewing and digging in the swamp, and as a government contract this earned a man more money in a month than he had seen in his life and for labour that wasn't half as grueling as what he was used to. What a feeling, to work in free country; to move to the harmonizing rumble and trill of voices, and to see faces unified in the sweat and toil, not of terror, but of purpose.

So it was my lot as Arabella's hand that we came to need each other. She laboured tediously over writing. She worried too much about how her words would sound once read aloud, and whether people would think what she meant for them to think. I, on the other hand, did not have the virtue to care what people thought, nor the will to ask. That was Arabella's gift. She had the touch. The softening of the brow that said: I know what you have lived, and your words are sacred to me. Her high African cheekbones reminded folk of every slave woman who had ever inspired a dream of dignity in them. I, on the other hand, with my applewood skin, saucy tongue, and warring glares, tended to inspire at best a vengeful desire, and at worst, fragile condescension. All this was fine by me. I didn't think much of zeal, for I had never seen it last. I was content to be the unchurched high yellow girl who tends the Brimmer house, and no one quite knows where she comes from (though all know what is implied in that lack of knowledge), but she is there, and Arabella is probably looking out for the poor, bush-wild thing. And so I minded my household tasks. I would cook and clean until I could not put off the writing any longer, and then I would take up my station in the study.

Additionally, not as a general practice but as peculiar occasion would have it, I would be called upon to heal. Mostly this meant preparing poke salad for a child in need of deworming, or a brew of scouring rush for old folk who complained of weak bones. There were several women and men in Dunmore who were root doctors with knowledge of potions as well as poisons, so I was not overly unique. But few solicited me openly, for although Dunmore was known as the witch town, it tried awfully hard not to be. Here and there I tended more serious wounds: I had once reset and splinted the broken leg of a child who suffered a kick from a mule; twice I had stitched the cut wounds of drunken men who had brawled outside the tavern; and another time I had used pipe smoke of mullein and hops to calm a young woman who had been found screaming like a banshee in the swamp.

And so I was known, which brings me back to the business that had me scrambling down the wretched green lane. It was dusk, as I said. And I had been sent for. Young Jim burst into the house after supper, as I was reading over Arabella's latest batch of notes.

"Lensinda!" said Jim as he rushed into the study, not even bothering to remove his shoes or properly close the front door, and the mosquitoes were always thick and fierce as the sun went down. I glared at him for that, and saw him wither, grasping nervously at his long chest. He was not yet a man, and I was normally quite fond of him, as most were; he was uncommonly bright and sober for his age, albeit a bit daft to household decency.

"There's a man," he blurted. "There's a man shot in the green lane."

I raised my eyebrows. We had heard two shots, about half an hour past. Unusual to hear gunfire so close, but not exceedingly unusual, as there were always people hungry for wildfowl. I capped my ink and rose to gather my things.

"Shut the door, Jim," I said to him.

"Simeon says to come, and quick." He spoke with hushed urgency as he fumbled at the threshold of the study. Fanny, the youngest Brimmer child, had come from the living room to stand and look into the study, cocking her head to one side.

"The front door, Jim," I said curtly, and he jumped and scurried past Fanny to the swinging front door and closed it, keeping his hand on it.

"I'm coming," I reassured him, "but no need to let the gallinippers eat the house alive."

I grabbed my pouch and went to the door, patting the silent Fanny on the shoulder as I passed her. I reached for my cloak. It was July, and the cloak would be hot despite the setting of the sun, but still a worthwhile protection from the bugs.

Jim waited with one hand on the doorknob, skittish, not meeting my eyes. I moved quickly but methodically, stooping to tie my boots tight.

I felt Jim's urgency, but I had questions that I could not put off, even as we made our way briskly out of the house and into the sounds of the evening on the village lane: the crickets, the clatter of dishes in washbasins, and music (someone was plucking up a banjo and moaning in harmony, a woman's voice trilling along and then laughing).

"Who is this man, Jim?" I asked, trotting to keep up with his long stride.

"I don't know," he said, and he pulled at his collar and glanced at the houses on either side of the lane.

"A man," he said quietly. "A white man who rode in with an Indian."

It took a moment for this to sink in before I stopped straight in my path. Jim was too preoccupied to notice, and for a moment I watched his back as my mind lurched over this strange piece of news.

"Boy!" I said, and Jim turned around, his face contorted.

"Don't yell so loud; Simeon says-"

I planted my feet in the soft ground. "Jim, I will raise all hell right here in front of your mama house if you don't tell me what you fetching me for."

"Sinda, I got to go, Simeon-"

He cut himself short when he caught my glare.

"Please," he said, softly now, his eyes darting around the lane again. The twang of the banjo kept on, and more sounds of supper joined in: chatter, water being drawn from a barrel, and in the slight distance, the bark and howl of the dogs. Near us, an old woman sat on a front porch, her face wreathed in smoke from a long pipe. It was loud enough, but the lanes of Dunmore were always watching, always listening. Jim had been directed to be discreet, and if he had cause for discretion, then this was indeed the worst place to talk.

"Please," he said again, with a pained expression. "In the livery," he whispered. And he tilted his head in the direction of the stable, beside the tavern on the main road.

I squinted a warning look at him and saw him flinch. He had been warned of me. Good, I thought. And I commenced to walk briskly to the stable. Jim breathed a sigh of relief and hurried alongside me.

Simeon was perhaps the only man for whom I would have come when called, especially under such dubious circumstances. And what could be more suspect? Granted, it was not uncommon for either whites or Indians to come through Dunmore. Indian men traded game meats, basketry, and leather goods for tools at the forge or drink from the tavern. A woman had once made an appearance to search out and shame the Negro father of her children in front of the man's wife and family-at congregation, no less, much to the everlasting horror and titillation of the churchgoing folk. But none of this spoke to the possibility of a white man and an Indian together; I could not find the logic of it. Perhaps the white man was a missionary on his way to the nearest Indian village. And the Indian himself-a protégé? But who in all hell would shoot a missionary? And what a bloody mess the whole town would be in if that were the case. I quickened my step.

The tavern was a two-story frame building clad in grey cedar that glowed with light from the ground level and hummed with some chatter. Swamp crew workers without wives dined here. Jim and I skirted the tavern and went into the stable. The stable boy was nowhere in sight; the rascal had probably run off to see his sweetheart in the woods, or to get a hot supper from his mother down the lane. We entered and went to Simeon's quarter horse. She was a big blue-roan whose haunch shivered as we neared. She looked at me with a large, warm eye, and I put my hand out to meet her muzzle.

"Tell me what you know," I said to Jim as he set about saddling the horse.

Jim was deft and quick in his movements as he fastened the girth. Still, I could hear the nervous quaver in his voice.

"Round end of day," he began in a near breathless whisper, "this white man and Indian ride right up to the farm."

"Did anyone else see them?" I asked.

"Probably," said Jim, "but if they did they maybe figured they was just passing through town."

He glanced at me warily, and I encouraged him with a nod. He went on:

"Me and the lads were out in the field digging drainage pipe, when the two of them ride up to the house. We seen they seen us. Didn't think much of it-figured they were old friends of Simeon. However, soon after, we start to get the feeling-well, Weems start to get the feeling that something ain't right. Can't quite say what it is, though he never can put words to it, but he almost always is right. Kept looking over his shoulder at the house until Humphrey and me start to feel the hair rise on our necks too. It was too quiet. But none of us rightly knew how to act, except to keep working till sundown, as we usually do. And so we did. And just as we was heading back to wash up, we notice a commotion by the front porch. Someone was running into the corn, and we start to hurrying across the field to see what was the matter. And then bam! One shot go off, and we stop and crouch. But we see Cassi run into the house and come out holding that rifle and we decide we got to at least run to her. Sure enough, bam! Another shot, from the corn. And we reach the porch and Cassi tell us we must go find Simeon, she afraid he might get shot. And we start to hollerin' for Sim, and rushing into the corn to find him. Finally we see some movement in the stalks and come upon him and he standing there and at his feet the white man just tumbling about on the ground in his own blood."

Awards

  • WINNER | 2023
    Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
  • FINALIST | 2023
    Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Reviews

Finalist for the 2023 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Praise for In the Upper Country

"Kai Thomas' In the Upper Country is a sweeping epic that imagines all the ways our ancestors tried to get free. This is an exciting new voice in fiction, as interested in the complexities of land and belonging as in the vagaries of human love and connection." 
—Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of Libertie
 
"Stories within stories; until I read them, I hadn't realised these are ones I'd long been wanting, needing even. In this remarkable debut, Kai Thomas fills out the picture of a place, a time, peoples and their relationships, all previously neglected in the day-to-day unfolding of the nations. His immensely compelling details, and a host of voices so well-wrought you can see and hear the speakers long after you've finished reading, will leave you eager to see what he'll do next."
—Shani Mootoo, author of Polar Vortex

"In the Upper Country is not only fiction alive with history; it is historicIn the Upper Country reminds me—yes—of Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes and Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. And practically every page turns up a sentence or a phrase that could have been penned by Toni Morrison or James Baldwin… a gift of lyric genius to enthrall all—and to educate Afro-Métis people about the love and courage that enabled their creation."
—George Elliott Clarke, Author of Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir

"Canadian history has long oppressed and neglected the Black and Indigenous stories at the foundation of the society that now exists here. That systemic erasure has deprived generations of Canadians the opportunity to learn about the historic kinship between Black and Indigenous peoples. But now, in the spirit of storytelling that has helped these cultures survive despite the horrors of history, a tremendous novel has emerged to fill that void. In the Upper Country enlightens and empowers in a way few other literary sagas can, by humanizing people who have long been historical footnotes and bringing their stories to the centre. Kai Thomas is a visionary, an advocate, and overall a groundbreaking storytelling voice who has now contributed a classic to this country’s canon. This novel will resonate for generations to come."
Waubgeshig Rice, bestselling author of Moon of the Crusted Snow

“In [In the Upper Country], Thomas makes superb use of [the tale for a tale] framework, with the stories building upon one another until they reach a surprising and satisfying conclusion…Thomas uses evocative detail and immersive description to explore slavery in Canada, a country that has been mythologized as an escape from the institution…[In the Upper Country] is a testament to the power of story and the veneration of those whose tales are often forgotten in mainstream media.”
—New York Times Book Review

“Thomas’s mesmerizing debut explores freedom, family, and the interconnections between white, Black, and Indigenous communities in 1859 Canada….Thomas amplifies the women’s stories with excerpts from a collection of enslaved people’s narratives, while stories of Black Canadians during the War of 1812; and the American enslaved people who settled Dunmore add to the vivid tapestry. At once intimate and majestic, Thomas’s ambitious work heralds a bright new voice.” 
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The harshly real and the fantastic mingle in ways that recall Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. What’s most impressive is Thomas’ imaginative power; sure-handed, often lyrical prose; and strong, complex, resilient women. An exceptional work that mines a rich historical vein."
—Kirkus Reviews
(starred review)

"This fascinating series of stories within stories reflects the fragmentary history of African and Indigenous people experiencing the effects of enslavement, particularly from a Canadian perspective. Engrossing and intensely readable, this book represents just the beginning of a larger narrative, with many chapters yet to be told; very highly recommended."
Library Journal

Author

© Brooke Bridges
KAI THOMAS is a writer, carpenter, and land steward. He is Afro-Canadian, born and raised in Ottawa, descended from Trinidad and the British Isles. In the Upper Country is his first novel. View titles by Kai Thomas