Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Fiction Historical

In the Upper Country

A Novel

by (author) Kai Thomas

Penguin Group Canada
Initial publish date
Jan 2023
Historical, Literary, Historical
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2023
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2024
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


WINNER OF THE 2023 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
Shortlisted for the 2023 Governor General's Award for Fiction
Shortlisted for the 2023 Amazon Canada First Novel Award
Longlisted for the 2024 Walter Scott Historical Fiction Award
The fates of two unforgettable women—one just beginning a journey of reckoning and self-discovery and the other completing her life's last vital act—intertwine in this sweeping, deeply researched debut set in the Black communities of Ontario that were the last stop on the Underground Railroad.

Young Lensinda Martin is a protegee of a crusading Black journalist in mid-18th century southwestern Ontario, finding a home in a community founded by refugees from the slave-owning states of the American south—whose agents do not always stay on their side of the border.

One night, a neighbouring farmer summons Lensinda after a slave hunter is shot dead on his land by an old woman recently arrived via the Underground Railroad. When the old woman, whose name is Cash, refuses to flee before the authorities arrive, the farmer urges Lensinda to gather testimony from her before Cash is condemned.

But Cash doesn't want to confess. Instead she proposes a barter: a story for a story. And so begins an extraordinary exchange of tales that reveal the interwoven history of Canada and the United States; of Indigenous peoples from a wide swath of what is called North America and of the Black men and women brought here into slavery and their free descendents on both sides of the border.

As Cash's time runs out, Lensinda realizes she knows far less than she believed not only about the complicated tapestry of her nation, but also of her own family history. And it seems that Cash may carry a secret that could shape Lensinda's destiny.

Sweeping along the path of the Underground Railroad from the southern States to Canada, through the lands of Indigenous nations around the Great Lakes, to the Black communities of southern Ontario, In the Upper Country weaves together unlikely stories of love, survival, and familial upheaval that map the interconnected history of the peoples of North America in an entirely new and resonant way.

About the author


  • Short-listed, Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize
  • Winner, Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize

Contributor Notes

KAI THOMAS is a writer, carpenter, and land steward. He is Afro-Canadian, born and raised in Ottawa, descended from Trinidad and the British Isles. In the Upper Country is his first novel.

Editorial Reviews

One of
Book Riot’s “10 New Historical Fiction Books Hitting the Shelves”
USA Today’s “20 winter books we can’t wait to read”
Cosmopolitan's "10 Best Historical Fiction Books of 2023"
Lit Hub’s “20 new books to read right now”
One of CBC Books "Best Fiction of 2023”

“Fresh and propulsive. . . . Thomas uses evocative detail and immersive description to explore slavery in Canada, a country that has been mythologized as an escape from the institution. . . . He also deftly makes clear the interconnectedness and rippling traumas it caused from Africa to the Caribbean to the Americas. . . . [In the Upper Country] is a testament to the power of story and a veneration of those whose tales are often forgotten in mainstream media.”
New York Times Book Review

"In the Upper Country is not only fiction alive with history; it is historic. . . . In the Upper Country reminds me—yes—of Lawrence Hill’s Book of Negroes and Ernest J. Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying. And practically every page turns up a sentence or a phrase that could have been penned by Toni Morrison or James Baldwin. . . . A gift of lyric genius to enthrall all—and to educate Afro-Métis people about the love and courage that enabled their creation."
—George Elliott Clarke, author of Where Beauty Survived: An Africadian Memoir
"Canadian history has long oppressed and neglected the Black and Indigenous stories at the foundation of the society that now exists here. . . . Now, in the spirit of storytelling that has helped these cultures survive despite the horrors of history, a tremendous novel has emerged to fill that void. In the Upper Country enlightens and empowers in a way few other literary sagas can, by humanizing people who have long been historical footnotes and bringing their stories to the centre. Kai Thomas is a visionary, an advocate, and overall a groundbreaking storytelling voice who has now contributed a classic to this country’s canon. This novel will resonate for generations to come."
Waubgeshig Rice, bestselling author of Moon of the Crusted Snow

"Kai Thomas's In the Upper Country is a sweeping epic that imagines all the ways our ancestors tried to get free. This is an exciting new voice in fiction, as interested in the complexities of land and belonging as in the vagaries of human love and connection."
—Kaitlyn Greenidge, author of Libertie
"Stories within stories; until I read them, I hadn't realised these are ones I'd long been wanting, needing even. In this remarkable debut, Kai Thomas fills out the picture of a place, a time, peoples and their relationships, all previously neglected in the day-to-day unfolding of the nations. His immensely compelling details, and a host of voices so well-wrought you can see and hear the speakers long after you've finished reading, will leave you eager to see what he'll do next."
Shani Mootoo, author of Polar Vortex
“In this exceptional debut, Kai Thomas deftly and compassionately braids deeply engrossing stories within stories that explore a little-known aspect of Canadian history. . . .
A mesmerizing, lyrical testament to the power of storytelling. . . . Thomas immerses us in the novel’s compelling landscape where, despite an honest depiction of the effects and consequences of enslavement for Black and Indigenous peoples in Canada, hope remains palpable.”
—2023 Atwood Gibson Writers' Trust Fiction Prize Jury citation
"Thomas’s mesmerizing debut explores freedom, family, and the interconnections between white, Black, and Indigenous communities in 1859 Canada. . . . Excerpts from a collection of enslaved people’s narratives [and] stories of . . . Black Canadians during the War of 1812; and the American enslaved people who settled Dunmore add to the vivid tapestry. At once intimate and majestic, Thomas’s ambitious work heralds a bright new voice."
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"The harshly real and the fantastic mingle in ways that recall Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer and Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black. What’s most impressive is Thomas’ imaginative power; sure-handed, often lyrical prose; and strong, complex, resilient women. An exceptional work that mines a rich historical vein."
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Eye-catching debut fiction, In the Upper Country delivers a novel of nestled stories . . . while also meditating on family, community, indigeneity, history and Canada’s role in the slave trade. . . . Thomas utilizes a theatrical setup — two apparent strangers in a shadowy cell who swap tales as an indirect way of both communicating and understanding one another. . . . There’s undeniable force to the embedded stories and the historical truths they bring to vivid life."
—Toronto Star
“[A] sweeping, powerful novel set at the terminus of the Underground Railroad. . . . In the Upper Country weaves together unlikely stories of love, survival, and familial upheaval that map the interconnected history of the peoples of North America in an entirely new and resonant way.”
Book Riot
"Thomas’ mastery of tone and intimacy in conversation, wry humour and attention to detail are on full display [and his] ability to render the land as an active character with many possibilities and image-laden contradictions infuses the story with a powerful rhythm and dark energy. Well-researched, strong and relatable characters emerge from this darkness, supported by a narrator (herself an author, by the way) whose unmistakeable courage keeps the reader perched above the hooves of history, enjoying an unprecedented view of the struggle for freedom in a continent descending into the abyss of civil and imperial war."
—Chanzo Greenidge, translator, international political economist, and member of Intemerate Earth
"This fascinating series of stories within stories reflects the fragmentary history of African and Indigenous people experiencing the effects of enslavement, particularly from a Canadian perspective. Engrossing and intensely readable, this book represents just the beginning of a larger narrative, with many chapters yet to be told; very highly recommended."
—Library Journal
“In his debut novel, In the Upper Country, Kai Thomas creates something wholly different from many of the narratives around enslaved and formerly enslaved people in colonial North America. . . . [This novel is an] exploration that tackles the underrepresented history of Black and Indigenous relationships in North America.”

In the Upper Country weaves together unlikely stories of love, survival, and familial upheaval that map the interconnected history of the peoples of North America in an entirely new and resonant way.”
"In the Upper Country . . . delves into the historical connections between Indigenous and Black enslaved people in North America. This book is heartbreaking, moving, and insightful all at once."
"Well researched and compelling. . . . Astonishing. . . . A highly original piece of fiction—and a major addition to the multi-dimensional, multi-faceted world of contemporary Canadian literature."
—Literary Review of Canada

Related lists