'Angels' Find Pre-Civil War Home In Idyllic Interracial Enclave

NPR's Tamara Keith talks to Breena Clark about her new novel, Angels Make Their Hope Here. It follows Dossie Bird, a girl who escapes slavery in 1849 and flees to a refuge in New Jersey.

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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

When the novel "Angels Make Their Hope Here" begins the Civil War is not far off. It's 1849 and the U.S. is riven by racial conflict. Inside the world of the novel a man named Duncan Smoot is about to save a young girl from slavery. Her name is Dossey - Dossey Byrd as he calls her. He brings her to Russell's Knob, a settlement in the New Jersey Highlands, that's a sort of idyllic interracial enclave where everyone is free and blacks and whites and Native Americans intermarry. This is the third work of historical fiction from Breena Clarke whose previous novel, "River Cross My Heart," was a selection for Oprah's book club. Breena Clarke joins us now from our New York bureau. Thanks for being here.

BREENA CLARKE: Oh, well, I'm really happy to be here, Tamara. Thank you for having me.

KEITH: I'd love for you to start by reading the description of Russell's Knob.

CLARKE: OK. The first building in the village was a small, stone house that sat like a muddy, brown bird hiding herself in dense foliage. Outsiders and casual climbers were meant to miss seeing the cleverly disguised house and the cut that led to the town. If you knew the cuts, you could find the town.

KEITH: Now can you actually find the town - this book is fiction - but, was there a real Russell's Knob?

CLARKE: Well, that's open to question. This is an imagined community. But there is some evidence, at least there is a narrative, about the so-called Ramapo Mountain people. And these people were said to have settled in the Highlands of New Jersey and that they were tri-racial people in 18th and 19th century America. Some people believe that their people continue to this day in that general area.

KEITH: The real drama in the plot happens when the characters leave Russell's Knob - this very protected place. And there's such a contrast between the safety that the characters seem to feel in Russell's Knob and the perilousness of the outside world. In the years just before the war, were escaped slaves and free blacks always in some amount of danger in places like New Jersey?

CLARKE: Well, yes they certainly were. When the Fugitive Slave Law goes into effect in 1850, the person who has self-emancipated was at risk because they could be kidnapped and can be returned to their masters. So no one was safe on this side of the Canada-U.S. border.

KEITH: And you really do create that feeling of danger in the book.

CLARKE: Well, thank you - because I believe that we don't have as much awareness of the institution of slavery from the perspective of the enslaved person and from the perspective of the person who self-emancipates.

KEITH: One thing in reading this book - it's about race and it's about slavery but at times it wasn't entirely clear what the race of the main characters was. And I'm wondering - Duncan Smoot, for instance, we assume he's a free black, though I don't think you ever state it out right. Was that by design?

CLARKE: Well, yes. It is by design. I think that one of the difficulties we get into when you're writing is that you're creating a world in which you're bringing your characters and to a certain extent you collude with your readers. You are urging your reading to agree about certain descriptions and certain things. And I wanted to leave certain questions of biological identity open.

KEITH: So you're not going to tell us?

(LAUGHTER)

CLARKE: Oh no - I guess I'm not. I really don't want to make up your mind. You know, I think the word amalgamation, which is employed most of the time in descriptions of people as a derisive term, in fact, can inform a more inclusive worldview of what a mixed race identity is. I think what you'd find among the people of Russell's Knob is that they have managed to bring whatever strengths and survival skills from all of their ancestors and bring them together to make a strong whole. To me, that's what amalgamation is and I think it's a positive.

KEITH: Breena Clarke's new novel is called "Angels Make Their Hope Here." Thanks for being with us.

CLARKE: Thank you very much for having me.

KEITH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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