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Enslavement in Southampton, County Virginia

Book Reviews


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Reviewed by Sheena Monnin for Readers' Favorite


5starflatwebThe Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes: Enslavement in Southampton County, Virginia by David J. Mason tells the story of the author’s great-grandfather, Parson Sykes, and his journey to freedom during the Civil War. The author does a remarkable job of setting up the details of the era for the reader from the very beginning, giving a comprehensive overview of the political and military movements of the time and how these impacted those forced into slavery in the United States. The story starts with Parson thinking about liberation and making plans over many months to remove himself from the wrongful, cruel, and unjust slavery forced upon him on the farm of Jacob Williams. He escapes in 1864 and joins the military, serving honorably and helping to end the horrendous enslavement of people in this country.


The Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes by David J. Mason was riveting from start to finish. The methodical way the author presents the bigger picture of the political and cultural issues of the nation while providing fascinating details about Parson Sykes’ life and mindset allowed the reader to feel connected to the story and to understand the incredibly huge risks Parson took in his liberation. The author writes with authenticity, attention to detail, and care on subjects that are sensitive to many people, presenting the facts as they are. Readers will feel connected to Parson Sykes as they read this book and will be fascinated to learn the historical details the author provides as he takes them on the admirable journey toward freedom that his great-grandfather bravely undertook.


Reviewed by Astrid Iustulin for Readers' Favorite


5starflatwebThe Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes by David J. Mason is a novel based on the true story of his great-grandfather. Parson Sykes lived in the 19th century in Southampton Country, Virginia, and was born into slavery. Yet, he had a clear vision of his future and what he wanted to achieve in his life - freedom. In 1864, during the Civil War, Parson decided to act and run away with his brothers. The Sykes enrolled in the Union Army, where they discovered that there, too, they had to face prejudice and discrimination against Black soldiers. Mason tells the story of his ancestor in detail and, in addition to giving information about him, offers the reader a detailed historical reconstruction of his time.


The Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes is a splendid novel that, in many ways, comes very close to a historical study. David J. Mason offers the reader a detailed story and a lot of food for thought. Above all, he highlighted his great-grandfather's thirst for freedom very well, making him an outstanding, charismatic character. Moreover, Mason depicts a precise picture of people and events. He represents very well the mentality of Parson's owner, Jacob Williams, and sheds light on the contribution of the Black soldiers to the war. I am convinced that this book will appeal to all readers who love history and are particularly interested in the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. This story will allow them to retrace some of those events following the protagonist's journey to freedom.


Reviewed by Essien Asian for Readers' Favorite


5starflatwebThe American Civil War period was a turning point for interracial relationships in American history. It set in motion the emancipation of slaves and the beginning of the subsequent struggle for equal rights for all Americans, irrespective of skin color. Parson Sykes, a slave resident in Southampton County, Virginia, at the time, uses his self-taught survival skills coupled with the lessons learned from previous slave rebellions and escape attempts, both successful and unsuccessful, to plan his escape from his ruthless owner, Jacob Williams. The Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes by David J. Mason is an intimate story of the factors he had to consider in his daring escape plan and the contingencies he set up in the event of capture and almost certain death during those dangerous years.


The Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes is a work of historical fiction. The Civil War era theme is fascinating as a lot of information concerning the lives of the enslaved and the slave owners is readily available but I daresay not quite like this one. The attention to detail is impressive and following Parson Sykes as he plans his great escape is riveting. David J. Mason did a thorough job on the backstory for the primary character while dove-tailing it smoothly into key historic moments. There is some repetition of details as you read and in one instance it felt like deja vu but it did not affect my understanding of the story. The author does a marvelous job with The Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes, a historical fiction masterpiece that students of history can learn a lot.


Reviewed by K.C. Finn for Readers' Favorite


5starflatwebEnslavement in Southampton County, Virginia is a work of fiction in the historical subgenre and is the first installment in the Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes trilogy. It is suitable for the general reading audience and was penned by author David J. Mason. The book covers the closing months of the American Civil War, during which time Jacob Williams’ farm run with slaves is attacked by insurgents. Parson Sykes had made plans to escape the farm for the safety of the Union, where the opportunity to serve in the Union army awaited with the formation of the Union Army XXV Corps.


The history of slavery in the United States is long, complicated, and emotionally charged, and this is especially true for the battle for liberty for those in bondage. Taking a complex and painful period of history and grounding it in the experiences of a single character with a unique position to teach us about it was a brilliant decision, and author David J. Mason’s painstaking research into the era has stunning life breathed into it by his gifted prose. Parson Sykes himself is a particular highlight of the work, a nuanced and engaging lead character whose understanding of the social and political world in which he lives allows him to gift the reader with an often difficult-to-grasp context for slavery and the civil war. Overall, Enslavement in Southampton County, Virginia: The Self-Liberation of Parson Sykes is an essential read for fans of historical fiction, taking a point of view on the Civil War that could easily have been difficult to relate to and creating a compelling and epic drama around a grounded and likable protagonist.


Reviewed by Margie Peterson for Reedsy Discovery


The prologue recounts Nat Turner’s rebellion and how it affected the community of Southhampton County, Virginia during the American Civil War. The slave owners kept closer control and watch over their slaves. They hired patrols to hunt them down and return them. The rail lines were closely watched by the Union, the Confederacy, the bounty hunters, and the slaves who sought freedom. The laws concerning runaway slaves were different in each state. If a slave was caught, they and their family were punished. Not just with beatings, but by being sold and separated.


The chronological description of important military leaders and battles resulted in legislative laws that made it easier for fugitive slaves to seek liberation and be able to fight for freedom in the Union Army. Each state had different laws regarding slaves’ personal liberty. Each chapter accomplishes two things. The first section describes the conditions on the ground and the key events that affected the war. The second section describes the details of Parson Sykes' work life in Cross Keys, Virginia. He and his family were monitored constantly. For some reason, his owner taught Parson to read. When he was sent to work at the Boykins Depot near the railroad, he was able to gather the information that helped him plan his escape.


The second story reveals the actions and thoughts of Parson Sykes during the year he prepared to escape toward Union lines from the slave state of Virginia. He kept his ability to read a secret. He kept the Haven a secret. He kept his plans for liberation a secret. Parts of Sykes’ escape with his two brothers come from the family’s oral history. How they traveled over 40 miles from Cross Keys to Camp Bowers Hill in Norfolk County remains their mystery. They got caught more than once but kept going anyway.


The repetition of what self-liberation entails is there for a reason. Soldiers are debriefed when they come back from a war zone. It was essential that Parson Sykes prepare himself before the escape because he needed mental toughness to push through unknown territory. Before reading this book, I knew nothing about the black regiments that became the XXIV and XXV, or their military victories. I did not understand that each battle resulted in a change in federal laws. One example is the “Contraband Decision.” I had never heard of the journalist Thomas Morris Chester.


It details the historical context of how black soldiers got their commissions and describes their moments of valor despite ongoing segregation. Told from a soldier’s perspective it makes for dry reading, but that’s the point. For information to be trustworthy, it can’t be embellished. Lives depend on it.