This is a novel based on an incident in the life of Charles Willson Peale, Early American painter, Revolutionary War veteran, inventor, museum founder, farmer. Although he opposed slavery publicly, Peale accepted an enslaved family into his household as payment for a debt. He freed the husband and wife after a few years, but held their son, Moses Williams, until he was 26, and taught him to be a profile cutter, working in his Philadelphia natural history museum. In imagining the Peale family’s life on an 18th-century farm, the book explores ethics and inclusion: the contradictions at the heart of this country.
I relied on the work of biographers and art historians, as well as Charles Willson Peale’s own voluminous writings, as published by Yale University Press. I found that Peale is a controversial figure; once seen simply as a hero, he has been criticized by feminist scholars for his patriarchal approach to his children and his treatment of his wives; and by art historians of color for not freeing Moses with his parents, and not teaching him to paint, only to cut profiles. Through fiction, I imagine the strengths and weaknesses—the humanity—of Peale and his household.
Advance Praise for Belfield
“What an intense creative rendering from a journey that allowed Joan Aleshire to explore and engage with her ancestors. As poets/writers, we are willing to do this difficult work of facing both sides: the shadow and the light, while doing our best to let all the characters speak, even the voiceless and the erased. When dealing with the realities of slavery, the ground is fractured at best, if not earth-quaked-ridden––so many facts unretrievable. Yet, as creatives, we dare to step into taboo places to fill in to make connections and meaning. My heart was with all the underdogs throughout the novel––both black and white, while chanting manumission. Aleshire resurrects Charles Willson showing his strengths and frailties. His memory haunts with the musing: ‘Did I do more good than harm?’”
—Glenis Redmond, the First Poet Laureate of Greenville, South Carolina.
She is a Kennedy Center Teaching Artist and a Cave Canem alumni;
author of six books of poetry
“The genius of Joan Aleshire’s novel, Belfield, is how it combines family history with American history while at the same time depicting portraits of portrait makers and those surrounding them. The riveting central character, Charles Willson Peale, is the painter and high-minded abolitionist who is also a flawed human being. The tension deriving from these two poles of his personality gives the novel its strong narrative drive. An assortment of minor characters and family members provides fascinating subplots: the madam of a brothel; ruthless bounty hunters; an orphaned girl who learns the craft of poetry, and an enslaved boy who becomes a master profile cutter. Belfield is intimate and historical, passionate and clear-eyed. It depicts a world never to be forgotten and another never before seen.”
—John Skoyles, poetry editor of Ploughshares;
author of seven books of poems and five of prose
“Beautifully written, meticulously rendered, Aleshire’s brilliant group portrait of the Peales—that fascinating family of American artists, collectors, and museum founders—has forever altered and deepened my sense of them and that time and place. Every page surprised and delighted me.”
—Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and
The Voyage of the Narwhal, among others
“In Belfield, we are reminded not only of the horrors of racism, by which, tragically, our national life remains saturated, but also of its complexities. Like so many of us, her Charles Willson Peale embodies the well-meaning liberal who, if only half-consciously, contributes to the very evils he reviles. Similarly, Joan Aleshire probes the affectionate civilities of familial relations but also its cruelties. In all instances, however, the author entirely avoids preachment. Rather, by her uncanny attention to detail, physical and characterological, she lodges all such material in the reader’s mind so firmly that she or he, discomfited, extrapolates the relevance of her novel’s world to the one we all inhabit.”
—Sydney Lea, author of six poetry books, Vermont State Poet Laureate, 2011-2015
“Joan Aleshire’s Belfield transports the reader to a place and time resonant with sights and sounds and wonderfully rendered characters that bring a previously untold moment in history to life. Through the story of one family, Belfield examines our nation’s ongoing and foolish quest to celebrate a utopian vision of itself while at the same time ignoring the horrors of slavery and its consequences. What an amazing novel this is.”
—David Haynes, author of Heathens, Somebody Else’s Mama,
and Live at Five. He was selected by Granta magazine as one the
best young American novelists in 1996; director of Kimbilio,
a Black fiction writers’ collective
About the Author
Joan Aleshire was born in Baltimore, Maryland with limb differences. She grew up in a large extended family, hearing stories about their Peale ancestors. She began to read and write stories, plays, and poems. Joan graduated from independent schools, and from Harvard/Radcliffe in 1960. She studied film and Russian, married, worked on a therapeutic farm in Vermont, and had a daughter. The family moved to Brooklyn in 1966 and was active in anti-war politics. In 1973, Joan moved back to Vermont with her daughter, started a community library, and wrote poems. She received an MFA from Goddard College in 1980, became Interim Director of the Warren Wilson MFA Program, and was on the poetry faculty from 1983 to 2013. She has published six books of poetry; Belfield is her first published novel. In 2012, she started a non-profit to support small-scale agriculture in Vermont. She co-founded the Urban Farm Fund at the Baltimore Community Fund with family members. Author Photo by Stephen Abatiell.
Trim Size: 6 x 9
Page Count: 224
Price: $21.95 (CA $29.08)
Publication Date: OCTOBER 2023
Distributor: IPG/Chicago, Ingram.
Rights sold: All rights available.
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