In the U.S. in the 19th century, slaves and masters had tense relationships—and after the slaves were freed, they often had no relationship at all. All of which makes the friendship between Fanny Thruston Ballard and Cecelia, her former slave, a surprise. Brad Asher chronicles this unusual relationship in his book Cecelia and Fanny: The Remarkable Friendship Between an Escaped Slave and Her Former Mistress.
When Cecelia was 15, she accompanied Fanny on a trip to Niagara Falls. So close to freedom in Canada, she took a chance and escaped from captivity. In Canada, she created a life for herself as an independent woman while Fanny went back to her home in Kentucky, where she married and had children.
Years later, Fanny and Cecelia began a cordial correspondence through the mail. Over the years, they sent many letters back and forth, keeping each other updated on their lives. Cecelia also used their relationship to search for her mother, who had not escaped slavery with her.
Not all of the letters survived, but Fanny’s son collected as many as he could find and kept them safe. Through these letters—as well as birth certificates and other records—Asher follows the two women throughout their lives. The story moves back and forth between Cecelia and Fanny, but Asher’s meticulous research weaves the two tales together. His additional writing helps to brings the story alive as well; the little details about Fanny’s family and Cecelia’s independence make the book even more interesting.
The story of Cecelia and Fanny is fascinating. Asher gets credit for taking historical facts and using them to write a riveting book that gives us look at a surprising friendship that stands as a testament to both human compassion and the ability to overcome remarkable adversity.
Cecelia and Fanny: The Remarkable Friendship Between an Escaped Slave and Her Former Mistress is available now from The University Press of Kentucky at a list price of $30.