Ohio University Press · Swallow Press ·

A Old Cove Press Book

The Freethinker’s Daughter
A Novel

By Jenny O'Neill

“Jenny O'Neill understands the best historical fiction not only illuminates the past, but also reckons with it…. [H]ere is a young woman coming into a complicated understanding of her own conscience. This is a thoughtful, thought-provoking work.”

Sarah Combs, author of The Light Fantastic

“Although hard things happen in this novel, The Freethinkers Daughter is not a maudlin tale. Not only does Cal show great strength of character, she is also a young girl of impressive convictions. Readers can’t help but cheer her on as she grows into an abolitionist and champion for others. This is an important book. Cal is a model of what it means to be an ally to Black people crushed under the weight of systemic racism in one of the most shameful periods in American history. Young people who want to support and advocate for anyone forced to live in the margins can benefit from Cal’s example. She also teaches readers, especially girls, important lessons on standing in their power despite opposition, and both trusting and using their voice for change. Read it, then go and do good.”

Claudia Love Mair, coordinator for the Kentucky Black Writers Collaborative, author of Don't You Fall Now: A Memoir, and (as Claudia Mair Burney) author of the Exorsistah YA series

“From the moment a flood sweeps us into Calendula ‘Cal’ Farmer’s story, we are drawn to this strong girl with her inquiring mind and capacious heart. Coming of age in Lexington in the 1830s, Cal’s soul is forged by witnessing the cholera epidemic, the brutality of slavery, and the losses they bring. Taught by her mother to think ‘the full of her thoughts,’ Cal searches her world for love and meaning even as she struggles to survive. The Freethinker’s Daughter will give young readers an emotional way into a moment in Kentucky history—and our national history—that is powerful in its own right and also speaks to the need for reparations. To underscore connections with our time and deepen discussion, pair this novel with I Was Here, the multimedia project created by Marjorie Guyon, Patrick J. Mitchell, and Nikky Finney. View the [images] online or in person and imagine Cal walking among them. Then imagine yourself. Cal will help put you there.”

George Ella Lyon, former Kentucky poet laureate and author of Back to the Light: Poems

"Cal, the narrator and protagonist of this engaging novel set in antebellum Kentucky, is exactly the kind of fictional friend I looked for as a girl. She is bright, honest, inquisitive, kind, and has a fierce sense of justice. She is a freethinker. We continue to be haunted by and grapple with racial and class inequality just as young Cal was. Our unfinished national project—an America fully realized in equality and fairness—is the same one that Cal was reaching for. The Freethinker’s Daughter reminds us how dreamers and thinkers and doers throughout history have inched us toward a more perfect union.”

Katherine J. Black, author of Row by Row: Talking with Kentucky Gardeners

This historical and inspiring coming-of-age novel for young readers explores topics of both historical and contemporary relevance as it follows a harrowing year in the life of its intrepid teenaged narrator.

Lexington, Kentucky, 1833: Calendula “Cal” Farmer, a thirteen-year-old white girl, has been raised by her abolitionist, freethinking mother to reason for herself, consult her inner wisdom, and come to her own conclusions. But when a flash flood devastates her family’s home, Cal is unexpectedly thrust into domestic service in a wealthy family’s mansion. There, she encounters firsthand the physical, intellectual, and emotional brutalities of slavery. Later, a cholera outbreak kills a quarter of the population, including Cal’s mother, and Cal enters an orphanage, where she bravely begins another chapter in her young life.

Cal’s story is sure to captivate readers as she confronts the injustices and uncertainties of racism, class consciousness, epidemic disease, and personal loss with independent thinking, perseverance, and love.

Jenny O’Neill has published three other novels as Jenny Davis: Goodbye and Keep Cold, Sex Education, and Checking on the Moon. She lives in Lexington, Kentucky, and most days can be found chasing her grandchildren around the backyard.   More info →

Order a print copy

Paperback · $14.36 ·
Add to Cart

Retail price: $17.95 · Save 20% ($14.36)

Buy from a local bookstore


US and Canada only

Buy an eBook

Amazon Kindle Store Barnes & Noble NOOK Google Play iBooks Store

Availability and price vary according to vendor.

Cover of The Freethinker’s Daughter

Share    Facebook icon  Email icon


Desk Copy Examination Copy Review Copy

Permission to reprint
Permission to photocopy or include in a course pack via Copyright Clearance Center


Retail price: $17.95, T.
Release date: April 2022
216 pages · 5½ × 8½ in.
Rights:  World

Release date: May 2022
216 pages
Rights:  World

Additional Praise for The Freethinker’s Daughter

“A realistic story for patient readers.”

Kirkus Reviews

Related Titles

Cover of 'Fire Is Your Water'

Fire Is Your Water
A Novel
By Jim Minick

At age twenty, Ada’s reputation as a faith healer defines her in her rural Pennsylvania community. But on the day in 1953 that her family’s barn is consumed by flame, her identity is upended: for the first time, she fears death and doubts God. Fire Is Your Water, acclaimed memoirist Jim Minick’s first novel, builds on magical realism and social observation to offer an insider’s glimpse into the culture of Appalachia.

Fiction · Appalachia

Cover of 'Night Garden'

Night Garden
A Novel
By Carrie Mullins

Set in rural Kentucky and told from the perspective of seventeen-year-old Marie Massey, this gut-wrenching novel about addiction and family ties offers an unflinching look at the opioid crisis and its devastating effects on a generation of young Americans.

Fiction | Small Town & Rural · Kentucky · Appalachia

Cover of 'Goshen Road'

Goshen Road
A Novel
By Bonnie Proudfoot

Set from the late 1960s through the early 1990s, this elegiac, unvarnished, and empathetic novel captures one working-class family in rural West Virginia as they balance on the dividing line between Appalachia old and new, with sisters Dessie and Billie Price as its urgently beating heart.

Fiction · West Virginia · Appalachia

Cover of 'Brides in the Sky'

Brides in the Sky
Stories and a Novella
By Cary Holladay

Each of the crystalline worlds Cary Holladay brings us in the short stories and novella that make up Brides in the Sky has sisterhood, in all its urgency and peril, at its heart. She crafts these stories with subtle humor, a stunning sense of place, and an unerring eye for character.

Short Stories (single author) · Women Authors · Fiction

Sign up to be notified when new Literature titles come out.

We will only use your email address to notify you of new titles in the subject area(s) you follow. We will never share your information with third parties.