The Water Dancer meets The Prophets in this spare, gripping, and beautifully rendered novel exploring love and friendship among a group of enslaved Black strivers in the mid-nineteenth century.
They call themselves the Stolen. Their owners call them captives. They are taught their captors’ tongues and their beliefs, but they have a language and rituals all their own.
In a world that would be allegorical if it weren’t saturated in harsh truths, Cato and William meet at Placid Hall, a plantation in an unspecified part of the American South. Subject to the whims of their tyrannical and eccentric captor, Cannonball Greene, they never know what harm may befall them: inhumane physical toil in the plantation’s quarry by day, a beating by night, or the sale of a loved one at any moment. It’s that cruel practice—the wanton destruction of love, the belief that Black people aren’t even capable of loving—that hurts the most.
It hurts the reserved and stubborn William, who finds himself falling for Margaret, a small but mighty woman with self-possession beyond her years. And it hurts Cato, whose first love, Iris, was sold off with no forewarning. He now finds solace in his hearty band of friends, including William, who is like a brother; Margaret; Little Zander; and Milton, a gifted artist. There is also Pandora, with thick braids and long limbs, whose beauty calls to him.
Their relationships begin to fray when a visiting minister with a mysterious past starts to fill their heads with ideas about independence. He tells them that with freedom comes the right to choose the small things—when to dine, when to begin and end work—as well as the big things, such as whom and how to love. Do they follow the preacher and pursue the unknown? Confined in a landscape marked by deceit and uncertainty, who can they trust?
In an elegant work of monumental imagination that will reorient how we think of the legacy of America’s shameful past, Jabari Asim presents a beautiful, powerful, and elegiac novel that examines intimacy and longing in the quarters while asking a vital question: What would happen if an enslaved person risked everything for love?
“Asim delivers a fresh, sweeping, must-read tale.” —New York Times
“I’m a sucker for stories that place love between Black people at the center of settings where, traditionally, Black love was thought impossible or unimaginable. I’m particularly drawn to books that reexamine that dreadful period in American history that we think we already know everything about—antebellum slavery—to reveal the layers, testimonies, and nuances that had previously been ignored. And to have this all drawn magnificently by the brilliant Jabari Asim makes this an absolute must-read for me.” —Robert Jones Jr., Entertainment Weekly (most anticipated books of 2022)
“Asim’s story is utterly absorbing. His people have wings; let them transport you.” —Margot Livesey, New York Times bestselling author
“Asim delivers a searing and redemptive story of slavery and survival…At once intimate and majestic, the prose marries a gripping narrative with an unforgettable exploration of the power of stories, language, and hope.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A mesmerizing touch of magical realism…As the enslaved embark on a soaring adventure in pursuit of freedom, a gripping and satisfying crescendo caps this lyrical story.” —Booklist (starred review)
Jabari Asim is a writer and multidisciplinary artist. He has written many nonfiction books, two novels, and books for children. He directs the MFA degree program in creative writing at Emerson College, where he is also the Elma Lewis Distinguished Fellow in Social Justice. He has written for the Washington Post and is the former editor-in-chief of the NCAAP magazine The Crisis.