Thursday, September 22, 2011

BOOK REVIEW AND GIVEAWAY WINNER: Cecelia and Fanny. The Remarkable Friendship between an Escaped Slave and Her Former Mistress

Today I’m reviewing Cecelia and Fanny. The Remarkable Friendship between an Escaped Slave and Her Former Mistress by Brad Asher.

In the spring of 1846, twenty-year-old Fanny Thruston Ballard and her father, members of Louisville, Kentucky’s elite, were vacationing at Niagara Falls. They were accompanied by Fanny’s personal slave, a fifteen-year-old girl named Cecelia. One night, Cecelia made the bold decision to escape across the Niagara River into Canada, thus gaining her freedom.

Over the next fifty years, Fanny and Cecelia went on to lead separate lives. During this time, both women married, raised families, and lost loved ones. The Civil War was fought. Both women dealt with its upheavals as well as the resulting changing economic circumstances. During this time also—surprisingly—the two women corresponded. Some of the letters (letters from Fanny to Cecelia) have survived.

Using a variety of primary sources including these letters, census records, newspapers, government pension files and a host of others, Cecelia and Fanny reconstructs the lives of these women, situating them within the antebellum, Civil War, and post-war periods. The book is not an in-depth dual biography of these women—although we do learn a good deal about the framework of their lives. Rather it uses the relationship between Cecelia and Fanny, in all its phases—childhood companions, mistress and slave, pre-war ex-mistress and escaped slave, to post-war ex-mistress and free black woman—to tell a story about the tenacity of the bonds of slavery. Cecelia and Fanny were linked not just as slave to mistress but within interwoven families. Theirs was an intricate web of connections: personal, economic, moral, and probably psychological. Along the way, the book also explores Louisville history (Fanny’s environment) during the second half of the 19th century, as well as that of the free black communities in Toronto and Rochester, NY (Cecelia’s environments) during the same time.

Cecelia and Fanny is more than a book about a slave’s escape to freedom. What makes this book unique is that the principal characters were based in Kentucky, a Union state during the Civil War. Moreover, Cecelia was a domestic slave in an urban environment, not a plantation worker. She escaped while already in Niagra Falls, with freedom a visible goal—Canada just across the river. There was no harrowing story of her flight. Her harrowing adventure begins after she has obtained freedom. Another interesting feature is that the story of Cecelia’s life includes the Civil War. She was not emancipated by it – she had taken that step herself. And yet, the war’s successful conclusion gave her the freedom to move back to Louisville. She moved back to the city where she had been a slave.

In the interest of full disclosure, as I mentioned before, my husband wrote this book. So I’m obviously biased. I’ve been fascinated by the story ever since he told me he found this cache of letters at the Filson Historical Society. A woman wrote to her escaped slave in Canada? Why? (How cool is that?)

The letters are an interesting springboard to much larger questions. Who were these women? What was their relationship that this slave and this mistress would be writing to each other years after the slave ran away?

By placing the two women within their historical and cultural context, this book addresses questions of slavery, freedom, and womanhood with insight and sensitivity and helps us to imagine the perspectives of these two very different women at this pivotal point in history.

Of course, I think the writing is wonderful and the research impeccable, but how could I think otherwise?

The book is now available. You should be able to obtain it from your local indie bookstore or online bookseller. The kindle or nook versions won’t be available until Oct.7.

The winner of the Cecelia and Fanny Giveaway chosen using is Sam from Tiny Library. Congratulations!


  1. This sounds so interesting! The premise is fascinating and I'm curious as to what some of the details were of the letters. Great review! :)

  2. Hi! I just found your blog--I'm a huge fan (and writer) of historical fiction, so I was so excited to learn about your book! I'm off to look for it now. :)
    (And your husband's book sounds fascinating, too!)