Oxherding Tale depicts the startling and varied adventures of Andrew Hawkins as he attempts to negotiate the perilous passage from slavery to freedom, crossing racial barriers and throwing his identity into crisis along the way. Born into slavery on a cotton plantation, Andrew from an early age at the same time becomes an exceptionally sophisticated thinker after being tutored by an intellectual. His status at Cripplegate, a plantation owned by Jonathan Polkinghorne, is deeply ambiguous; conceived by an enslaved butler, given birth by Polkinghorne’s wife, well regarded by Polkinghorne, he attempts to exploit his unusual position to negotiate a path to freedom.
At twenty, having fallen in love with Minty, a seamstress of blossoming beauty, Andrew is emboldened to confront Polkinghorne, requesting a deed of manumission in order to earn money so that he might marry Minty. Polkinghorne sends Andrew to a widow’s distant farm to work for wages and promises to sign the freedom papers only when Andrew returns with the money. Aflame with the possibilities, Andrew sets out to take responsibility for his future, to shape a destiny for himself and his loved ones.
The novel consists of two major parts. Part 1, entitled “House and Field,” is devoted largely to Andrew’s life at the Polkinghorne plantation and to his service at Flo Hatfield’s farm. Most of Andrew’s childhood and adolescence is presented in flashbacks; at the end of chapter 1, Andrew has received his assignment to the Hatfield farm, and his...
(The entire section is 629 words.)