Ari Shapiro speaks with author Kai Thomas about his debut novel IN THE UPPER COUNTRY and exploring the Underground Railroad's little-known history in a community of free Black people in Canada.
Kai Thomas brings a new twist to the oft-told story of the Underground Railroad in an assured debut that combines elements of myth, history and the prison drama to unique effect.
Acclaimed debut novelist, Kai Thomas, spoke to me about writing historical fiction that interweaves Black and Indigenous cultures, the power of storytelling, keeping grounded in his work, and his novel “In the Upper Country.”
"Thomas has done extensive research from oral and written histories, even down to recipes from the era. The fruits of those labors are a book that will transport you back in time and personally connect with you. I was viscerally affected by this book, and it will stay with me for a while."
Thomas discusses his expansive tale, which takes place in the 1850s and focuses on the unique relationship between enslaved and Indigenous people in North America.
Kai Thomas, the author of In the Upper Country, joined the podcast to discuss historical fiction, racism in North America, and why land and the outdoors are so important.
"I think it's helpful and even healthy, as a nation in this case, to examine those moments with a finer toothed comb [...] all of the messy bits, and to talk about them and imagine them."
"The thing that I love about fiction is you get to not only try and model what you find in the history books, but you get to read between those lines."
Over a recent lively chat, Thomas talked about how these considerations informed his debut novel, In the Upper Country (Penguin, out now), which follows Lensinda Martin as she finds a home among a community of formerly enslaved refugees living in southwestern Ontario during the mid-1800s.