The Price of a Child

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In her memoir BLACK ICE (1991), Lorene Cary described her experiences as a black girl from a working-class family in a white, upper-class New England preparatory school, formerly an all-male institution. Race and gender are also important issues in Cary’s first novel. Based on an actual story, THE PRICE OF A CHILD is a moving and suspenseful account of a courageous woman’s attempts to obtain freedom for herself and for others.

After dreaming of freedom all her life, Virginia (Ginnie) Pryor finally has a chance to escape from the Virginian Jackson Pryor, father of two of her three children. With the help of the Philadelphia Underground Railroad, Ginnie, her daughter, and her older son walk away from Pryor and take refuge with the Quicks, a large, prosperous black family, active in the abolitionist cause.

However, even in the North there are problems. Ginnie, now Mercer Gray, cannot forget the baby she left behind. She also worries about Pryor’s efforts to get her back or to avenge himself on her rescuers. Within the Quick family there are the usual conflicts, often between amorous men and their wives, who are too tired from hard work and childbearing to be interested. Ironically, the two characters who seem made for each other, Mercer and the personable Tyree Quick, cannot marry because, to his regret, Tyree already has a wife.

In the end, the lovers part, Tyree to take care of his extended family, Mercer to continue speaking out against slavery and for women’s rights, exposing herself to the salacious curiosity of her audience, as well as to threats from mobs of Northern anti-abolitionists. However, at the end of this memorable novel, the heroine’s virtue is rewarded, for as a gift from Tyree, Mercer receives “the price of a child,” that is, enough money to recover the little boy she lost.