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Books: Modern Medea by Steven Weisenburger

Modern Medea
by Steven Weisenburger
(Hill and Wang)

Oprah Winfrey’s big screen adaptation of Beloved may have been a box office flop, but Toni Morrison’s well known, Pulitzer Prize winning novel has also served as inspiration for a new book that should prove a much more lasting and endearing contribution to this modern masterpiece.

When Morrison began her 1987 novel, she drew upon the real-life story of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who in 1856 killed her daughter Mary (Beloved in Morrison’s novel) as her master and a team of slave catchers bore down on the house where she and her family were hiding . Now, UK Professor of English Steven Weisenburger offers a detailed historical account of the events leading up to Garner’s act of infanticide and the ensuing trial that captivated a nation already showing the signs of discord that would soon lead it into war.

In Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder from the Old South, Weisenburger examines how the trial became the dueling grounds for slave owners and abolitionists. Perhaps more importantly, however, he allows readers insight into the complexities of a country forced to recognize the moral issues involved in slavery and the atrocities inherent to the “Peculiar Institution,” atrocities that could lead one woman to not only risk her life to escape its paralyzing grip but to sacrifice that life and those of her children when it again threatened their freedom.

No ghosts were ever mentioned in the historical accounts of Margaret Garner, but through painstaking research, Weisenburger offers readers the most detailed inquiry to date into the real life of this woman and her amazing attempts to gain freedom for herself and her children by whatever means she had. Referencing over 200 sources, the bibliography to Modern Medea lists numerous long forgotten newspaper articles and court documents which Weisenburger used to piece together this historical account.

Rather than simply throw this information at the reader in a dry and formidable manner, however, Weisenburger weaves it into a rich narrative-esque history lesson that’s set in our own backyard, in and around Boone County, Covington, and Cincinnati.

From beginning to end, Modern Medea proves equally enthralling as its fictional counterpart. Unfortunately, in real life, there are no happy endings for Margaret Garner.

-Todd Piccirilli