Abolition as Ongoing
Two Wings to Fly Away by Penny Mickelbury
Set against the landscape of fear created by the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and the impending Supreme Court decision on Dred Scott v. Sandford, Penny Mickelbury’s novel Two Wings to Fly Away offers a vivid portrait of life as a Black American that in part remains relevant to this day.
Mickelbury’s protagonist, Eugenia Oliver, or Genie, is a 24-year-old escaped slave who has used her freedom in 1856 Philadelphia to found her own business as a seamstress and support Harriet Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad. Yet Genie lives in constant fear of being discovered or caught; to create a modicum of safety, she carries a gun and often disguises herself as a man, Eugene Oliver (“because even a Black man was safer than a Black woman walking alone”).
The experiences of each of the novel’s large cast of characters are informed by their personal proximity to slavery. When Genie and Adelaide, a Black woman with limited memories of her family’s past as slaves, learn about the mistreatment of Eli, a young escaped slave, by his employer, they have vastly different reactions. “Adelaide was appalled, and Genie was again reminded how narrow her friend’s view could be, despite her inherent goodness. Adelaide was born a free woman and while she despised the horror that was slavery, she could only imagine it. No slave ever forgot how deeply it harmed.” Where Adelaide remains surprised by those horrors of slavery, they have forever changed Genie. She has only been able to move forward by suppressing the details of her past and the pain entailed. Even so, slavery remains “an ever-present reality” that even a life of freedom cannot erase.
The moments in which Mickelbury uses the past as a referent to the present are among the novel’s strongest. She at once captures the physical danger and emotional toll many Black Americans continue to face today as well as the importance of close-knit communities that lift one another up.
In contrast, the novel’s white characters must make an active effort to better understand what their friends endure. After learning that a Black family in Philadelphia is being held as slaves, Ezra, a white private agent, and Abby, a white heiress and Genie’s love interest, both pledge “to end their ignorance about the circumstances confronting Colored citizens, not only in Philadelphia but in all of America.” This decision leads Abby to join a women’s abolitionist group, where she learns about the impending Dred Scott decision.
When the characters ultimately free the family enslaved in Philadelphia, Genie’s and Adelaide’s reactions again differ greatly: “Adelaide grew very quiet. All the anger and worry left her and she just looked sad. ‘Will it ever be different for us?’ Genie shook her head impatiently. She had stopped having that thought years ago. It did no good to wonder if or when things ever would be different for people born with dark skin.” Despite her dedication and willingness to risk her life to free the enslaved, Genie has resigned herself to a future of subjugation. Adelaide, though dismayed, remains hopeful that things will change.
While the United States has transformed significantly since the 1850s, Black Americans continue to face inequities in access to financial services, employment, education, and more. Further, the injustice of slavery is perpetuated by the criminal justice system, including racist policing and mass incarceration. The moments in which Mickelbury uses the past as a referent to the present are among the novel’s strongest. She at once captures the physical danger and emotional toll many Black Americans continue to face today as well as the importance of close-knit communities that lift one another up.
With so many interesting characters, Two Wings to Fly Away could benefit from richer descriptions of the characters’ inner voices, particularly Genie’s and Abby’s. The more action-driven plotlines are given precedence over Genie’s budding romance with Abby. As a result, their relationship feels somewhat one-dimensional. The forthcoming sequel will perhaps give Mickelbury further opportunities to develop their relationship and share the experiences of an interracial lesbian couple in the nineteenth century.
Above all, Two Wings to Fly Away is a historical novel that beautifully explores the past through the lens of the present. Through its assembly of characters, multiple plot lines, and touches of action and romance, Mickelbury paints a vivid portrait of a community fighting slavery in 1856 and 1857 Philadelphia, and reminds us of the ways in which abolition remains an ongoing process.
REVIEWED BY TESSA MENATIAN
Tessa Menatian is a ghostwriter and writer of ghosts. She studied poetry and nonfiction writing at Bard College and lives in Northampton, MA.