Winona: A Tale of Negro Life in the South and Southwest is the shortest of the three novels (only 250 small pages). It was originally published in serial form in 1902. In chapter 1, the narrator explains that
[many] strange tales of romantic happenings in this mixed community [on the border between America and Canada] of Anglo-Saxons, Indians and Negroes might be told similar to the one I am about to relate, and the world stand aghast and try in vain to find the dividing line supposed to be a natural barrier between the whites and dark-skinned race. No; social intercourse may be long in coming, but its advent is sure; the mischief is already done. (287)
We are first introduced to White Eagle, a white man who is “adopted” by the native community after saving chief Red Eagle’s life. Next, we meet the two children, Judah and Winona. They act like the indigenous people, have their skills and dress, but have black blood in them.
The two children’s closeness to nature is a recurring theme (ex: 376). We learn that White Eagle had married a ‘handsome, well-educated mulattress who had escaped from slavery via the underground railroad” (290) and adopted her child, the boy Judah. His wife died after giving birth to Winona, so he has raised the children himself (with the help of an old squaw), on the remote island in Eerie County. (“White Eagle taught [Judah] to speak like a senator, ride bareback like a hull circus […] Truth is, neither of them two forlorn critters realizes what ‘bein’ a nigger’ means, they have no idee [sic] of thar true position in this unfrien’ly world” (310) explains Ebenezer Maybee later.) Judah has started going to school, and Winona is apprehensive of the clash of school-learning and their own life-experience (292).
While out with their canoe, the two children meet some white men (one of them named Thomson) who ask them questions and offer to buy their fish. The children are polite and generous. The two white men ascertain that the island they live on is not part of Canada (294) and while the children identify themselves as Indians, the men think otherwise: “Not by a long sight” (296).
Next, we meet Warren Maxwell, an Englishman, who is traveling on behalf of a law firm in order to find Captain Henry, whose children (if they exist) are the legal heirs to the family fortune when the (already very old) Lord dies. Captain Henry supposedly killed a man because both were in love with the same woman, then he fled to America.
Maxwell seeks shelter at Ebenezer Maybee‘s hotel because of the horrid weather, and shortly thereafter meets the two children, who arrive drenched and desperate for help: White Eagle is badly hurt. Maxwell offers to go along. They find White Eagle dead, shot in the back. The children, of course, take it badly, especially Winona. Maxwell instantly feels a need to protect her: “‘Poor child! Poor little thing!’ he mused. ‘Heaven must have sent me here at this awful moment. You shall not be friendless if I can help you'” (308).
There’s a recurring motif in the novel of the Englishman (blue-eyed, no less, and young) as a protector, if not savior figure. Examples: “Everyone seemed to regard Warren Maxwell as the person in authority. […] Winona clung to him with slender brown fingers like bands of steel” (309). “Each looked upon Warren Maxwell as a god” (313).
Gender also plays a role. While Maxwell isn’t too worried about Judah, he wonders what “is to become of Winona after I leave this place?” (310) and Maybee promises that he and his wife will take care of her. When Maybee mentions that White Eagle may have been an Englishman, Maxwell has an idea:
I’ve determined to write home and see if something can’t be done to educate these children and make them useful members of society. In England, neither their color nor race will be against them. They will be happier there than here. (311)
Maybee agrees to take care of them until Maxwell’s return three months hence. The Englishman has won Maybee’s trust and friendship: “Don’ you ever be skeery whilst yer in Amerika an’ Ebenezer Maybee’s on top o’ the earth. By the Etarn’l, I’ll stick to you like a burr on a cotton bush, durn me if I don’t” (312).
Maxwell returns, only to find that two slave traders from Missouri (the two white men from earlier) have taken the children because they owned Judah’s mother before she escaped. He is devastated — though again mainly on Winona’s account: “Where is she now — the poor, pretty child?” (315)
The two children have been put to work as slaves at Colonel Titus‘ Magnolia Farm, near Kansas City. Titus himself is an Englishman but has no qualms against owning slaves or “making money by any means that came in his way (or out of it, for the matter of that)” (316). Bill Thomson is his close friend and the overseer. Winona serves Titus’ crippled daughter Lillian who “found complete happiness seated in her rolling chair gazing out upon the dusky toilers who tilled the broad acres of foaming cotton” (317). Two years have passed since Judah and Winona were taken from their island. Judah is now “assistant overseer, because of his intelligence and his enormous strength. As graceful as vigorous, he had developed into a lion of a man” (320).
We get some back story of how the two children arrived and what their experiences were during these 2 years. Judah has been treated badly, brutally, and has become a stoic man. The boy who was taught to speak like a senator is now made to say ‘massah’ (328). Thomson makes very clear that none of Judah’s skills matter, because he is a slave: “No more high-head carrying’, gentlemanly airs, and dictionary talk; breaking hosses in ain’t wuth a cent to a nigger” (328).
Maxwell travels to Missouri on business for the law firm: Colonel Titus’ uncle just passed away and, with no other known heirs, he inherits the family fortune. Yes, you guessed right, the uncle is the same Lord on whose behalf Maxwell traveled two years earlier, in vain, to find the emigrant Captain Henry and / or his offspring. (And if you guessed that Judah and Winona are the heirs to the English fortune, you’re right again, though this doesn’t get spelled out for another few chapters.)
Colonel Titus is pleased to hear that no other heir exists. He wants his daughter to live a life of comfort. When Titus calls Judah to serve them (330), the boy and the lawyer recognize each other instantly, but don’t betray any emotion. Maxwell also meets Thomson (the ‘owner’ of the two children), and is given a lecture on the American (well, Southern, — or rather, slave-owning) way:
[Our institutions] have made this country. ‘Spose you have some compunctions of conscience over us, eh? Most Englishmen do at first. But, man, look at the advantage it gives, the prosperity it brings, the prestige it gives our fine gentry over all the world. You must confess we are a grand people. (332)
In response, which Maxwell makes a remark about the Boston Tea Party. Thomson, however, keeps talking: “But see what we’ve done for the Africans, given them the advantages of Christian training, and a chance to mingle, although but servants, in the best circles of the country. [They] have decidedly the best of it. The masters suffer from their ignorance and incompetency” (332).
Maxwell eventually speaks up: “Well, gentlemen, my opinion is that you are wrong. A government cannot prosper founded on crushed and helpless humanity” (332). He is clearly the good guy here, and from the very beginning of the story draws in the reader’s sympathy.
When Judah tells Maxwell that Winona is about to be auctioned at the slave market, and that he has sworn to kill her if there is no other way to save her from this humiliation, Maxwell has to act fast. “‘Trust me, Judah, I will not fail you.’ The tears were in Judah’s throat as he tried to thank him. ‘I do trust you Mr. Maxwell, next to God” (336). Maxwell admires Judah’s strength and courage, and sees in him “[something] truly majestic” — he is a “superb” man now, uncontaminated by slavery. To Maxwell, Judah is “the true expression of the innate nature of the Negro when given an opportunity to be equal” (335). Judah has also had a prophetic dream of the Englishman “coming toward [him] out of a cloud of intense blackness. […] only for my hope in you as our deliverer, I’d have shot myself months ago” (336).
About to board the steamer that will take the slave traders, Judah, and Winona to the market, Maxwell runs into Maybee, who tells him of the atrocities of the Territory militia (338). Here, too, Maxwell feels he must help, so he promises to join Maybee as one of the Free Soldiers as soon as the children’s situation is sorted out. Still, it is Judah, not Maxwell, who comes up with a plan: once the slave traders are drunk, the three, together with Maybee, will lower a small boat off the side of the steamer and escape (343).
The group find shelter with Preacher Sampson Steward, who has sheltered abolitionists before (at risk of his own life and that of his wife and children). The preacher makes some good points about his faith / calling and the use of violence (349) as well as the evils of slavery and any kind of oppression (351). Warren leaves Judah and Winona with John Brown’s men, so that they can take them (via the underground railroad) to Canada where they can be free.
He and the parson ride on. The parson is shot by one of Thomson’s men, and Maxwell is captured: there’s a large reward on his head. The Englishman is to be burned at the stake. As an angry mob is about to set fire to him, Maxwell feels pity (369) because there are children in the crowd. Maxwell’s hide is saved at the very last minute by the least expected person: Colonel Titus. The colonel points out that burning the Englishman is foolish and will make the South look bad / only strengthen the abolitionists (372). The wiser course of action, he argues, is to abide by the law and take him to jail.
The court, refusing to hear Maxwell, decides in favor of the Colonel, and sentences the Englishman to death. The date for the execution is set, and now he is forced to sit in a cell and wait. Maxwell becomes very ill, and a mulatto boy is assigned to him as a nurse. “Maxwell was fascinated by [him]; he thought him the prettiest specimen of boyhood he had ever met” (388). Yes, it’s Winona in disguise. Maybee and John Brown try to trick the jailer, but Thomson arrives, fully armed. It seems the game is over, but then Judah appears and overpowers the slave trader. “It is between you and me, now. Our roles are reversed. It is you who must die” (393) explains Judah, but before he can shoot the man, Captain Brown stops him. They escape.
We learn that Parson Steward was only wounded, not dead, and is now joining the Free Soldiers with more men to strengthen their ranks. There’s a showdown between Judah and Thomson. The slave trader is given the choice to jump off a cliff into the river or be shot, so he jumps (416). Later, Winona finds Thomson half-dead in the river. Even though he treated her and her brother so badly, she protects him and keeps Judah from shooting him. The colonel is already dead and Thomson, knowing he too is about to die, gives Maxwell a full testimony of the children’s heritage: White Eagle was in fact Captain Henry. Titus killed him because “he was also jealous of his wife’s love for Henry […] she loved him until death” (427). It was not Captain Henry who killed the man, but Thomson, who committed the murder to avenge the lady’s honor, in full knowledge that Henry would be blamed.
Maxwell takes Judah and Winona to England, where Judah serves the Queen and Winona becomes Maxwell’s wife. The final scene switches to a new setting, an old black woman telling others Winona’s story because it gives them hope, because it is a sign that things are changing.
There are several overarching themes of the three novels. Here are a few of them:
- Focus on women with mixed heritage, the beauty but also the difficult social situation that result from mixed-race relationships in times of slavery and just after abolition.
- Fascination with passing / the impossibility of determining ‘race’ in any simple way / showing the absurdity of the idea of a clear distinction between ‘black’ and ‘white.’
- The question of social equality — who is / can be equal (races, genders)? What happens if we treat each other as equals?
- Religion & ethics as healing influences for a nation (in Winona, see p. 385)
- Personal, first-hand experience trumps indoctrination in those who are essentially good (or at least still redeemable) people. Hopkins tries to give this first-hand experience to the readers of her fiction: like the listeners to Winona’s story at the end of the novel, they can learn that “It is what it is” no longer has to be true: the changes may be incremental, small and slow, but they are happening. Things can and will be different.