Dark Knowledge
by Clifford Browder
Anaphora Literary Press

"History is at war with myth. Myth tells us what we wish had happened; history tells us what did."

Chris Harmony is part of the illustrious Harmony family of South Street Seaport, a family of sailors, ship masters, and well-respected businessmen. Unable to follow the seafaring path, young Harmony pursues schooling and history instead, aiming to create a family history based on his father’s old papers. What starts as a curious side project soon takes a dark turn when Chris finds evidence that may connect his family to the illegal slave trade. Determined to uncover the truth, Chris’s investigation encounters friends and foe alike as he works to clear, or smear, his family name. What will the results of his findings be, and how will he handle the consequences?

Set in late 1860s New York, this historical novel is the third in the Metropolis series by author Browder. Using 19th century New York as his muse, Browder again paints a picture of a gritty city full of promise, potential, and danger. This time the focus is on South Street Seaport and the illegal slave trade.

The author’s series is well-researched and full of likable, interesting characters, and this latest novel is no exception. Harmony’s quest for truth and his moral absolutism are admirable, in part because he is a young, somewhat naïve man. Browder cleverly pits young Harmony against older characters as a device to show differing viewpoints and approaches to the world and all its glories and sins.

Slavery is a dark stain on United States history, with its repercussions still being felt in social, economic, and even cultural circumstances today. It’s a fact that slave labor was used to build many of early America’s cities, like New York, and that businesses and families profited from this labor, and it’s a fact that still makes people uncomfortable. Played out in the media many times, when new information revolving around historical events sheds light on negative, unsavory aspects, there’s a tendency to try and shut it down or relegate it to “signs of the times.” Chris’s encounters with other members of New York society are an accurate reflection of this, as he’s told by multiple people to leave things alone and sometimes is on the receiving end of violent reactions. In a way, the seemingly unresolved ending of this novel perfectly portrays how current societies today react to new findings: There is scandal or drama, but immediate change doesn’t occur. Instead, change is incremental, its power coming from the few who start a movement and those that continue to carry it.

Slavery is a hard topic to portray in a nuanced light. Browder does a commendable job at doing so by balancing out the characters’ different opinions about the former slave trade, and the book never reads as apologetic literature. Browder even uses the mechanism of Chris’s dreams to facilitate conversation between members of the Harmony family and shows how weak the defense is for engaging in such a business. Chris’s dreams also give voices to slaves—characters inspired by the Draft Riots of New York—to illustrate what slavery was like in the Northern states, and Chris is partially inspired by these dreams to uncover the truth. Overall, this work of fiction does a decent job at addressing and acknowledging a disgraceful period in New York history, and may even inspire readers to do some research on their own.

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