Kingman sets her new novel in 1840s-era Philadelphia and Virginia. Her main protagonist, Grace MacDonald Pollocke, a miniature portrait painter, awaits her husband’s return from Canton, China, with a shipload of goods for trade. Stepping off the ship with Dan Pollocke is Anibaddh Lyngdoh, a runaway slave who has created a new life far from her past as the property of others in Virginia, her two sons testimony to what she has achieved the last eighteen years. Anibaddh’s explains that her reason for returning is an to introduce a new variety of silkworm to the thriving American market, but Grace wonders why her old friend has risked all by her presence in Philadelphia, where Southern slave owners track down runaway slaves with offers of lucrative rewards.
Much as Grace entreats Anibaddh to leave for a safety of herself and the two boys, the former slave is adamant, finally revealing the true purpose of her visit. Sworn to secrecy, Grace leaps at an opportunity to aid her friend’s cause when two of her Southern portrait “sitters” beg the artist to travel to with them to Virginia for a family a reunion and religious revival featuring a popular minister. The ladies hope to convert Grace to their way of thinking about slaveholding and change her liberal perspective while she paints the miniatures of extended family members at the reunion. Grace agrees to go to Virginia, keeping her own secret and her own past.
This novel is couched in deeply buried family stories, Grace’s Scottish origins, the volatile institution of slavery, Christian slaveholders versus abolitionists, the vagaries of extended family relationships and religious values, Northern versus Southern politics and the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution concerning the equality of men. While Grace’s well-meaning interference yields no helpful results for Anibaddh’s mission, the young Mrs. Pollocke is reminded of her own cultural identity and her place as a liberal thinker among the family she is visiting in Virginia.
The social issues in the novel are dramatic and controversial, 19th-century America in the throes of opposing forces and expanding trade opportunities. In grave danger while in Philadelphia, Anibaddh refuses to leave until she has accomplished her purpose. Her eyes opened by the differences in between the conservative South and the easy freedoms she enjoys in Philadelphia, Grace is caught up in a conflict that culminates in a court trial and the revelation of both Anibaddh’s and Grace’s family secrets.
As is her style, Kingman’s novel is often weighty with detail, long pages of the Southern minister’s righteous rants about the value of slavery in the sight of God, the Southern women badgering Grace to accept their way of life and the classic conflict between North and South. Whether Abibaddh’s story or Grace’s is more critical to the evolution of the novel remains a question for this reader, but Grace survives her visit to Virginia and a reawakening of her past but does not escape unscathed by the emotional conflicts she has accepted on behalf of her friend. As we know all these years later, the ideological battle between North and South rages on, a defining element of the American psyche.