This story is told in two voices, one is that of the mistress of the Allen plantation, Theodora Allen, and the other is that of the slave, Sarah Campbell. This particular slave is the illegitimate child of the master, Cornelius Allen, and his slave and mistress, Emmeline.
Just a child, Sarah does not understand that she is a slave, and she questions everything. Her mother tries to teach her the ropes because a slave who thinks too much can be in great danger. Separated by only a few months in age, Sarah is raised with Clarissa, her half-sister, the legitimate child of Theodora and Cornelius and is allowed to play with her in the big house.
Clarissa is willful, bright, overindulged and very spoiled. Around the age of 8, Sarah and Clarissa cannot play together as much because Sarah must begin to learn how to work in the kitchen and how to eventually be a lady’s maid to Clarissa, and Clarissa must be educated like a lady. Clarissa is unhappy about not being able to play with Sarah as often as she likes, and she begins to badger her mother to allow Sarah to be with her when she has her lessons. Theodora finally relents. Sarah is also very bright, and she pays close attention, learning to read, write and do numbers, alongside Clarissa, even though she has no books or writing implements and is there only as an observer. When her mistress realizes this, she informs Sarah that she must never tell anyone that she can read and write because it is illegal for slaves to be educated. Theodora had been told that slaves were uneducable and was surprised to discover this was not true. She takes it upon herself to secretly continue Sarah’s education and provides reading material for her as she grows older. This education stands her in very good stead in her future.
From her earliest childhood, as she learns the rules she must always follow, Sarah resents being a slave and harbors dreams of escaping. She is strong and courageous, but the consequences, if caught, would be devastating. Mr. Allen was sometimes cruel to Sarah’s mother and her sister Belle, selling Belle as punishment, when Emmeline disobeyed him and stopped visiting him in his room. Belle was horribly abused and raped for a period of time, until Mr. Allen finally acquiesced to Emmeline’s pleas and paid to buy her back, when Emmeline once again moved into his bedroom. He had all the power. Emmeline had none. Sarah would dream of one day punishing him for his acts of cruelty toward her family.
Theodora is an obedient but thoughtful wife, although she, too, suffers abuse from her husband, Cornelius. Besides realizing that he is a heavy drinker who grows vicious when he is drunk, she knows he also keeps Emmeline as his mistress. She is unable to do anything about it because he controls her totally and is in complete charge of their affairs; there is little she can even do to protect herself. In a sense, Theodora is a slave also, albeit in a gilded cage. Her husband is as much of an “overseer” for her as are the “overseers” he has hired to watch over his slaves. She, like the slaves, is often subjected to beatings and threats if she does not acquiesce to all of his demands. She must even call him Mr. Allen, rather than Cornelius.
As slave masters go, though, Cornelius was among the most tolerant. He provided the slaves with decent living quarters, plentiful food, and clean, acceptable clothing. The slaves created little communities and a lifestyle for themselves that they could somehow endure. They had some free time and were often provided with the opportunity to earn their own money. They were rarely whipped because their conditions of life did not warrant disobedience. They did not want to escape because it would probably mean their recapture and eventual sale to another master who would not be as moderate. So long as they obeyed him and did not try to escape, their lives were more manageable there than they might be someplace else. Cornelius encouraged the slaves to marry and have children because their offspring became his personal slave trade, at practically no extra cost. He happily provided medical care and sustenance to an additional mouth, which he would need, eventually, to work on the plantation or to sell for cash.
When Clarissa married Julius Cromwell, Sarah was given to her as a wedding gift. Sarah and her own husband, Isaac, a coachman, accompanied Clarissa to her in-laws home. Once there, Sarah was forced to also work in the Cromwell kitchen and not devote herself to Clarissa full time, as a lady’s maid. When Clarissa gave birth to a son, the world was suddenly turned upside down. She is turned out of the Cromwell house and sent back to her own family before she is even completely recovered. Disaster follows. It is at this point that the book truly takes off and becomes a page turner. It is not until the very end that the secrets are all revealed and the book comes to a really surprising conclusion, one that no reader will guess unless that reader reads the last page first, something I advise strongly against doing because they will then miss out on a really interesting read.
The description of the slave’s lives, in their cabins and in the fields, or wherever they were assigned to work, feels so real and is told in such plain terms that the reader will be in that time period on the Allen estate, experiencing their lives along with them. The words will fly by, but the savagery of the slave owners and the bigotry and blindness they exhibited to the fact that these slaves were people, just like they were, may make the reader want to stop them from coming, or at least slow them down! The racial hatred and lack of concern for the pain, physical and emotional, of the slave, is really hard to take. The Underground Railroad, which led to recapture or to safety, was so dangerous, but it was the only way out and the secret lives within lives create greater and greater tension, page by page. Sarah’s future is in the balance and she experiences much, as the story continues, that will capture the reader before the book ends.
The way that human beings were kept as private property, the way the slaves were sold, the way punishment was meted out, was barbaric. I had a hard time keeping myself emotionally neutral because the author’s description of this despicable behavior was told in such a matter of fact way, that while it made the book easy to read, it also sometimes made me almost accept the life they lived. Yet this life was intolerable for those enslaved. Slavery, after all, was an abomination and blight on our history and the history of any people that enslaves another.