Ellen Craft is property; in this case, of her half-sister Debra, to whom she was given as a wedding gift. The illegitimate daughter of a Georgia plantation owner and a house slave, she learned to hate her own image, which so closely resembled that of her “father:” the same wiry build, the same blue eyes, and the same pale—indeed, lily-white—skin. Ellen lives a solitary life until she falls, unexpectedly, in love with a dark-skinned slave named William Craft, and together they devise a plan to run North. Ellie will pose as a gentleman planter bound for Philadelphia accompanied by his “boy” Will. They make it as far as Baltimore when Will is turned back, and Ellie has no choice but continue. With no way of knowing if he is dead or alive, she resolves to make a second journey—South again. And so Elijah Craft enlists with the 125th Ohio Volunteers of the Union Army: she will literally fight her way back to her husband. Eli/Ellie’s journey is the story of an extraordinary individual and an abiding love, but also of the corrosive effects of slavery, and of a nation at a watershed moment.
“The story tells of how a brave and resilient black woman went to great lengths to gain not only her freedom, but that of the man she loved.” - Amazon Reviewer Kelley McCormick
“[A] deliberate and sincere historical fiction wends its way through this abject time in our nation’s youth...Touched with Fire is a welcome addition to the ever-increasing canon of Civil War fiction.” - E. Warren Perry, Jr., author, Swift to My Wounded: Walt Whitman and the Civil War
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Read an excerpt:
William Craft admired the interior of the small church, much of which he had built. His master required him to work ten hours six days a week, but he squeezed in many late nights as well as his free Sundays, his one day of rest, to do most of the building’s finishing work and the crafting of the altar and pews. Being a skilled cabinetmaker set him apart from most slaves, and it brought in a good income to Master Johnston, his owner and a banker in their town.
Yes sir, he thought, it was not as large or as fancy as the white church, but it had style—his style: smooth clean lines to naturally draw your focus to the altar, and lovingly crafted highlights and scrollwork to fix your gaze on the pulpit where the minister preached.
A large, elderly black woman sat down heavily next to him.
“Good morning to you, Miss Betsey,” said Will, bowing slightly. “And how are you this fine Sunday morning?” A house slave belonging to Colonel Thomas Collins, a prominent member of the white community, Will had known Miss Betsey all his life.
“Terrible,” fussed the old woman, wheezing. “My arthritis is so powerful bad today it’s a wonder I can walk.”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear it.”
“Sorry and a cat’s whiskers don’t never fix a thing, but thank you anyways. But listen, young man, I’s sitt’en here for a reason. How old is you?”
“I’m twenty-five,” he answered. “But you know that.”
“Yes I do, but I wanna be sure you does, because it’s high time you take yourself a wife. A young, honest ’n fine-looking buck like you got no business being single. I knows lots a young girls be only too pleased to be the aim a your partiality, and it’s high time you got about it.”
Every matron in town seemed to want to play matchmaker for him. It was a subject he dearly preferred to avoid, but he was trapped in church with no escape.
“Well, it’s not so easy as that, Miss Betsey,” he started, but was cut off.
“What in thunder ain’t easy? You a man ain’t you? Just look ’round this here church,” she said, waving her cane in the air and nearly knocking the hat off the woman sitting to her front. “It ain’t like you ain’t got a plentitude a pretty gals like chickens in a barnyard ready for plucking. What ain’t easy ’bout it’s what I’d like to know? Ain’t there even one good nuff for you, Mr. All-Fire-High-and-Mighty?”
“Now Miss Betsey…”
“Don’t you ‘Miss Betsey’ me. It ain’t right a fine young boy like you ain’t do’en his duty. Now I can pick a woman make you happy as a tick in a dog’s ear, just see if I can’t.”
“I’m sure you can, Miss Betsey…”
“Then what’s your problem?”
“The problem is a slave marriage has no standing, and you know it. We don’t belong to ourselves, but to our masters to decide if and when we come or if and when we go, as their pocketbook or mood decides. Now what kind of a marriage is that?” he said heatedly.
“Shush,” Miss Betsey hushed him, “keep your voice low.”
She looked at the Reverend Zachary Hess at the front of the church, the white preacher sent every Sunday to watch over the slave congregation. Sitting quietly observing the assembling crowd, he was fiftyish, fat, squinty-eyed and sporting a handlebar moustache of truly epic proportions. The whites forbade the assembly of slaves for fear they would hatch plots to rebel, but church was the exception. Religion, properly supervised, was believed to have a calming influence on the mind of the slave, and Hess was there to see that this church and its messages were properly supervised. He did not preach himself; a black minister, Reverend Evander, did that. He just sat by the altar staring balefully at the congregation and watching, watching, watching. Watching him watch them gave William a case of the shivers, but there was nothing to do about it.
Miss Betsey leaned in close to William and in a low voice said, “Now you listen and you listen good. Ain’t noth’en in life for nobody that’s their own. The good Lord says when you lives and when you dies, where you goes and what you does, and that’s as true for any white man as for any nigger. The day a jubilation’s coming, William, when all slaves will taste the sweet, sweet fruit a freedom. I knows it in my heart. Maybe I ain’t gonna see it, but it’s a coming none the same.”
“Well, the good Lord is taking his own sweet time about it,” said William bitterly.
“Don’t you blaspheme Lord Jesus,” said Betsey. “I reckon the Lord knows His business better even than some grand pumpkin like you.”
A solitary figure walked past, taking a seat five pews to their front. That it was a white woman surprised William until he recognized her as Ellie Smith, a short, thin and handsome young woman with jet black hair and a sad yet defiant set to her face and eyes. William knew she was the slave daughter of Major Smith; everyone in town knew the scandal of her parentage. Her mother was also the offspring of a master-slave coupling, making Miss Ellie a quadroon.
Two of the women next to her got up and moved, leaving her prominently alone as she stared straight ahead.
“Why do they do that?” whispered William.
“Do what?” said Betsey.
“Why do those women move away from her like that?” he said, nodding to Ellie.
“Oh, you mean that piece a calico? Just see how fine she dresses, putt’en on airs like she’s the better of us all just cause her daddy’s a white man and she white as the harvest moon in a midnight sky her own self. And for all her airs them clothes ain’t nothing but hand-me-downs from her daddy’s real gals.
“And she talks even better’n you, all high and mighty when she ain’t no more’n just another nigger. I knows for a fact she can’t neither read nor write, just like the rest a us, even with her fine airs. And she won’t have nothing to do with no black man, she’s so proud a that white skin. Proud a what I don’t even know except being conceived in shame and she act like she got a badge a honor. It ain’t fitt’en.”
William noted many young men watching Ellie, a strange blend of lust and hostility in their eyes. There was not a man here who did not want her, knew he could not have her, and felt a fierce resentment because of it. A resentment apparently shared, thought William, by most of the women.
William caught the look in the Reverend Hess’s eyes, who was also staring at her, and the lust William saw there curdled his blood.
William shook his head. He knew she refused the advances of every young man in the congregation, and even if her dresses were hand-me-downs from her half sisters, she was still the best-dressed woman in church. And growing up in the house with her half sisters, she did speak like an educated woman, even if she was not. Of course, William was the same. Dealing almost exclusively with educated whites in his trade, he learned to speak like one.
“I hopes you ain’t got your eye set on that trash,” sneered Miss Betsey. “That ain’t nothing but trouble, and that’s the Lord’s sweet truth.”
“No,” said William. “I don’t need that problem in my life. I’m no fool, Miss Betsey.”