The beginning was sweeping, dramatic, a harbinger of things to come. I would later realize that the prologue is an excerpt from the climax of the book, an interesting choice by Grissom.
Lavinia, newly orphaned at seven years old after a disease takes both parents, is brought to live at Tall Oaks plantation in Virginia. She becomes an indentured servant to the household and is quickly adopted by the slaves in the kitchen house, discrepancy in skin pigmentation notwithstanding.
The workings of the plantation through the eyes of a young child are nothing short of fascinating. The delineation between slave and free, noble and servile, male and female, hit me hard, and I became angry.
My mind kept chanting: This happened. This happened. This happened. Men owned other men. Masters raped their servants, got them pregnant, and faced absolutely no charges. Women were forced to become wet nurses for children who weren’t theirs. You could ask to “jump the broom” and marry another slave if you wished, but your owner could deny you both on a mere whim, rendering any consensual activities illegal. African Americans were treated like animals, and usually worse.
Against this backdrop, young Lavinia struggles to find her place in society. Even abandoned as she is, her (white) features place her at a definite advantage, and like Fanny in Austen’s Mansfield Park, she garners a special brand of attention when she comes of age. She clings to her “family” in the kitchen house, by whom she was raised, but is eventually and very cruelly denied access to them.
Full disclosure; I struggled with the heroine a bit. Narrative Muse specializes in curating, collecting, and celebrating works by women writers and stories featuring strong women protagonists. The problem with women characters in well-researched historical novels is that they usually aren’t. Strong, I mean. In the 1850s, only men could own property, vote, etc. A woman’s value was intrinsically wrapped up in how accomplished she was and how docile a wife she could be. She could rage against her position, and some women rose to notoriety by good deeds and written works, but often after their time.
Lavinia as a character goes through periods of horrific domestic abuse and subsequent addiction to help her cope with her situation. I have to begrudgingly admit that under the circumstances, she did her best. I could hardly expect her to don a cape one stormy midnight and pen the Emancipation Proclamation on her own by the light of a candle. But I sort of did want her to.
Which reminds me: I expect a lot from heroines. Subconsciously, I want women protagonists to reverse cultural norms, right a grievous wrong, defy stereotypes and rescue someone all in one story.
This is not a happy, feel-good tale, and it does not end happily for all parties. It is the sort of harrowing fare that one might be told on a plantation ghost tour, wherein the listeners nod grimly at the fate of the plantation owner and say, yes. Good. What we reap, we sow. I admire Grissom’s insistence on giving us a complex ending. There is a time and place for double weddings and closing scenes that end in a jolly contra dance, but now is not that time.
I will say it again. This book made me angry. But the good kind of angry, the type that makes me want to take action, both on behalf of all Lavinias in the world, and on behalf of their adoptive families, black and white.
Side note: slavery and sex trafficking are terrifyingly prolific today. You can help at Operation Underground Railroad.