If you’re offended by harsh racial epithets and violence, you might not want to read Living Half Free, a first novel by Haley Whitehall. Set in the South before, during, and after the Civil War, it tells the story of Zachariah, a very light skinned black who is held in slavery, and who is sold away from his family, and taken from Virginia into the deep South, where he faces harshness and bigotry worse than he’s ever encountered.
Over time, he earns his freedom and meets a young Indian woman, Lillian, and the two fall in love. Able to pass himself off as white, he’s able to live with Lillian on the reservation, until the arrival of the sadistic son of his second master uncovers his identity. Zachariah then learns that prejudice runs just as deep among the Indians as the whites and is forced to accept being put back into slavery to save Lillian from the tribe’s harsh punishment. Lillian uses her wiles to free him once again, and the two of them flee to California where the prejudice is less.
As you follow Zachariah through his life, beginning in Strasburg, Virginia in 1838, to San Francisco in 1867, you will be alternately moved and repulsed; moved at how his strong faith helps him survive the severest of conditions, and repulsed at the depths of depravity to which some people can sink in their treatment of others.
This is a great story, only a bit in parts by what is difficult for even the most experienced writers – dialect that sometimes doesn’t ring quite true. Dialect, when written, depends on the reader’s pronunciation to be rendered, and having grown up in the South in the 50s and 60s, when some people still spoke much like they did during the 19th century, as well as being a writer and teacher of English, I found some of the words and sentences a bit difficult to comprehend, and not like I recall old people of my childhood talking. The author can be forgiven, though; this is one of the most difficult skills to master, and some of us never truly get it. Once you get past these few glitches, though, you’ll find this a good read, for a first timer who I predict will get better with time.