“What does a slave look like to you?” one character asks another in “A Walk Across the Sun.” “Appearances can be deceiving.” The central focus of Corban Addison’s debut novel is the covert and pervasive influence of human trafficking around the world; this hidden trade comes to light through an American lawyer’s exploration of the disturbing world of modern slavery. Addison’s novel is an admirable attempt to depict slavery in both developed and developing countries; across the novel, he explores sexual exploitation, forced labor, and drug dealing. By dint of his own life as a lawyer with a strong interest in international human rights, Addison’s experiences position him well to write this story. In the novel, he takes real-life reports of human trafficking, constructs a compelling narrative from these accounts, and infuses a troubling subject matter with victims that display human vitality and love. Yet for all these emotional components, his writing ultimately cannot overcome a trite plot and stereotypical character representations.
After a tsunami destroys a coastal town in India, sisters Ahalya and Sita are left to fend for themselves when their family perishes. Despite their best attempts to escape danger, they find themselves trapped and enslaved, and repeatedly witness the monetary exchanges that dictate their next affliction as they are passed between various slave owners. They are initially sold together as prostitutes to a brothel, but are later separated when Sita is sold as a drug mule to transport heroine from India to France. Across her harrowing journey, she witnesses various incarnations of human slavery, like the prostitution of Eastern European women and forced labor at an Indian restaurant in Paris. The novel alternates between this narrative and that of Thomas Clarke, a Washington, D.C.-based corporate attorney who is struggling to come to terms with his failing marriage and professional dissatisfaction.
Addison’s prose style often leaves much to be desired. His writing tends to be clichéd, like his depictions of the emotional trauma of a failing marriage, the death of loved ones, rape, and enslavement. As he tries to resurrect his marriage, Thomas’s moment of epiphany emerges in rather trite prose: “Thomas felt as if he had been cleaved in two. He was still in love with her, he realized. He had never stopped loving her. Even when their child had died. Even when her eyes had become cruel and her tongue had cut him. He would marry her all over again. She was the best thing in his life.” More troubling is the way in which this linguistic simplicity impinges upon the characters’ psychological depth: harnessed to such conventional language, the characters are denied the complexities of full consciousness.
In addition, the majority of people that populate the novel are often purely stock. Though these characters are believable and sympathetic, this connection is largely because of cultural access to their stereotypical depictions. Thomas, for example, is a well-meaning, socially-concerned lawyer. He feels trapped in a commercial law firm ever since his father, a distinguished judge, pushed him along a career path he never desired for himself. He marries an affluent Indian girl from Mumbai, but her father resents Thomas’s cultural insensitivity, which paves the way for discussions of cultural conflicts throughout the novel.
The idea of “serendipity” also recurs throughout the novel, but in many cases the coincidental events seem overly artificial and undermine the realism of experience. All too often, the novel’s dialogue and plot resemble a Hollywood thriller, with witty but insubstantial conversational exchanges between its characters. Thomas meets his wife Priya in Cambridge, but she returns to her home in Mumbai after their marriage—strained by the death of their daughter and Thomas’s demanding job—disintegrates acrimoniously. Thomas is forced to take a sabbatical from his law firm and decides to work for the legal non-profit CASE (The Coalition Against Sexual Exploitation), which deals with trafficking and sexual violence issues in the developing world. The only available position is, of course, in Mumbai, and Thomas moves there. He initially lives with his roommate from Yale, who fortuitously enough also works in Mumbai. The parallel narratives only intersect when CASE arrives at Ahalya’s and Sita’s brothel—also conveniently in Mumbai—at the same hour that Sita is sold as a drug mule. If that coincidental chain of events was not sufficient, Thomas finally tracks Sita down in Paris at the very minute that she is being driven to an airport, bound for New York. The scene plays out as a cinematic trope: as Thomas arrives outside the house, the car leaves the driveway. Thomas recognizes the face of Sita’s captors, and chases after the black car as it turns the corner. At the same time, Sita looks out of the darkened car window and sees an unknown man running after them.
However, despite its stylistic deficiencies, “A Walk Across the Sun” is engaging and narratively well paced. The novel’s final result is commendable and successful: in relating the shady world of human trafficking and slavery, Addison shows how quickly life can descend from the commonplace into complete helplessness and hopelessness. Addison’s exposure of the world of modern slavery seems, however, unnecessarily didactic, for while he attempts to show the variations of human trafficking, his simplistic narrative and literary construct divest the novel of complexity. Though he initially claims that there is more than meets the eye in the stories of modern slaves, the novel crafts a world where individuals are instantly recognizable and do not develop psychologically. There is no moral ambiguity, and the narrative ends on a note of complete resolution. While satisfying, the dénouement deprives the story of the realism of human slavery, a complex social phenomenon, and as a result, the novel ultimately fails in its attempt to create believable narrative from authentic accounts.
Students Design Slavery CourseA Sociology course about modern-day slavery designed by undergraduates will be taught next spring by Sociology Professor Orlando Patterson.
Carr Center Douglass Prize Awarded to KaraSiddharth A. Kara, a Fellow with the Carr Center Program on Human Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery, won the 2010 Frederick Douglass Book Prize for his book, “Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery.”
Profs Talk Econ of SlaveryProfessors and students discussed the deep connection between America’s history of human bondage and its economic ascendancy during a three-day conference at Harvard and Brown University entitled “Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development.”
Students Publish Booklet on Slavery at HarvardIn the early days of Harvard, slaves played a role in the everyday life of the university. They worked in the homes of faculty and alumni, and later, they hid in the Warren House as part of the Underground Railroad.
Harvard's Exploitation of LaborDespite its massive wealth, Harvard has continued to exploit its workers throughout its history.
Harvard and Slavery: Office Hours with Sven Beckert