The Bottom Line: With The Northwest Country, Flanders establishes himself as one of America’s best active American historical fiction writers. Highly recommended.
What’s the difference between historical fiction and a period piece? Both disciplines require an uncommon attention to the mannerisms, communication style, technology and cultural trends of a specific moment in time. Yet in historical fiction, true events provide the framework through which original characters take action, transporting readers to a place and time that feels exciting and authentic.
Fans of the genre will be delighted by this third installment in Jefferson Flanders’ Tarkington series. This time out, it’s 1798, and the Northwest Territory encompasses what is now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as the northeastern part of Minnesota). Merchant-trader Calvin Tarkington finds himself leaving the comforts of his New York life to assist Judah, a friend who has immigrated to Ohio. When Tarkington arrives, he finds that his Friench-American friend is gravely ill with cancer-like symptoms. Five years after the Fugitive Slave Act, which empowered runaway slaves to be recaptured in free territories, it seems that Judah’s father-in-law has rescued two runaways, killing a man in the process. Judah fears that the surviving slave catchers’ relentless quest will ultimately lead them to their settlement, imperiling the entire family’s safety.
Tarkington feels a moral obligation to take Judah’s entire family east. But at what price? Even if they manage to leave before the slave catchers arrive, the journey will require a great deal of risk.
Much of the book’s tension is derived from Flanders’ harrowing portrayal of the slave catchers themselves – precisely the kind of lawless, immoral predators that made the frontier so frightening. What’s more, Flanders’ depiction of Judah’s immigration story is fascinating (His father-in-law: “Just as I believe that we are called to create a New Jerusalem, I believe it was God’s will that my daughter should unite with an Israelite”).
The Northwest Country is not to be missed. While more will be gleaned reading the series in order, Flanders provides enough backstory to make this a perfect entry point for newcomers.