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BookMark: "The Indigo Scarf" By P.J. Piccirillo Explores The Generational Effects Of Slavery

I picked up “The Indigo Scarf” because it’s about the region I call home—the mountains of north central Pennsylvania. I love history, and history about my own area drew me immediately. I also like books that are factual and well-researched. “The Indigo Scarf” by P. J. Piccirillo is both. It’s a richly layered and complex story.

The journey begins in 1882 when a young woman chances to meet an older male relative she hasn’t seen in some time on a train. The two go to the dining car to catch up. The woman protests, knowing that multiracial people are not welcome. The conversation that ensues between the man and woman reveals a dark and twisted family history, and an old mystery. 

At that point, the story moves back in time to the year 1799 in the slaveholding state of Virginia. Marriage between slaves was illegal in Virginia, but Jedediah, a field-hand, and Juda, a house-slave, want to be married. Their owners know they’re in love and cruelly break them up. When he’s taken away to Pennsylvania, all Jedediah has to remind him of Juda is the indigo scarf she made him, which gives the book its name. 

Piccirillo’s book shows the damage of slavery, dehumanizing to both master and slave. 

A comment by Jedediah will always stick with me. He says, “Today, dey makes me feel like a slave inside a slave. Dey makes me feel squeezed so I can’t breathe.”

Jedediah decides he must flee into the wilds of northern Pennsylvania. His conscience is haunted so much so that he is unable to fully commit to the white woman who loves him and bears him children. 

In neighboring Virginia, a slave named George is told he will be sent to Pennsylvania. His master, who is also his father, scolds him for ingratitude when George asks to bid his mother goodbye. In Pennsylvania, George works at a mill with Quakers who do not believe in slavery and meets a white woman, whom he loves. They decide to run and their journey coincides with Jedediah and his woman’s. 

The two couples settle near one another and raise families. Their lives are intertwined throughout generations, leading to the meeting which began the book. 

Readers learn with the two couples how to make a life in wilderness. From cabin building, cloth-making, and farming to whiskey-making and fending off attacks from wild animals and natives, readers are exposed to the many tasks required for survival. The dark, dense forest proves itself to be both a haven and a threat, almost a character in its own right.

Sometimes you find a book that feels like looking through a window at an actual scene. At times I wanted to shout a warning to the characters, as the story is that compelling and immediate. The wealth of detail Piccirillo provides about the lives of wilderness-dwellers in the 19th-century brings “The Indigo Scarf” to life for readers. The anguish of Jedediah is a poignant reminder of a past era. It was painful to watch him try make a new beginning and watching him and the others cope with hardships we can only imagine.

The language of the period enriches the story with a texture that envelops the reader and makes it hard to put down. The years unspool with the stories of these men and their descendants, who are shadowed by the past, yet always striving for a brighter future. “The Indigo Scarf” isn’t an easy read, but it's worthwhile and immensely informative. 

Reviewer Debbie Reynolds is from Wellsboro. She works with the Writers Conference of Northern Appalachia and the Northern Appalachia Review.