As I read this book I was reminded of the Victorian novels I read as a young girl, in which the heroine always faced the most awful circumstances but was rescued by a hero at various turns in her life, each one with a secret that tormented him or her and caused the story to twist and turn until it resolved itself in some way, at the end, with consequences that could not be avoided or altered.
This book is a saga, well worth the read. I listened to an audio version and the reader did a spectacular job speaking in many voices and never confusing any of the characters. Her expression was spot-on. It was almost like watching a show playing out in my mind.
The well developed characters are gentler and wiser than those far more educated and worldly, and they will endear themselves to you. Those that do not are typical of the cruel monsters we often encounter in life and ascribe their tormented souls to their environment or their experience, but whatever the reason, they are the dregs of the universe.
The opening horror-filled scene is quickly moved into the background as the story begins on a beautiful plantation in the 1700's, a time when slavery was accepted and people were property.
A young child, Lavinia, is brought home to a plantation by the master of the property, the Captain, and she is placed in the Kitchen House to work alongside the slaves, although she is Caucasian. Her brother has been sold, her parents are dead, and she is alone in the world.
Blacks who are enslaved and without free papers are doomed to a life of unbearable bondage, poor housing, insufficient food, overwork and constant fear of being beaten, used or sold and separated from those they loved. In spite of their hardships, they forge a community and care for each other, taking pleasure in life’s simple joys. They embrace Lavinia, regardless of her color, and nurse her back to health.
This is Lavinia's story. She grows up "colorblind" and is not aware of her different station in life or of the fact that she will be free some day, and she loves her home and her family, Mama Mae, Papa George, Uncle Jacob, Belle, the twins, and all the family that surrounds her. She wants to remain with them forever. Her days are work filled and pleasant, once she grows used to her surroundings and responsibilities. She thrives and is actually happy, working and enjoying the friendship of other children her age. As young as she is, she cares for those younger and learns to love.
This is the story of her plight, which although in sharp contrast with the plight of slaves, is almost as dreadful, even though it will only be for a finite term of which she is unaware. They are all owned. It is the story of her innocence, her ignorance and naïveté which leads to dramatic events, some happy and some tragic.
The secrets and mysteries of life on the plantation move the tale in numerous twists and turns. Knowing the truth would have made circumstances turn out in a happier fashion, but these were times when many things were not discussed openly, and women had limited power and freedom. Women belonged to their husbands as much as slaves belonged to their masters, albeit they lived in better circumstances.
The author has done a commendable job capturing the idea of what it meant to be a "slave" and a "master" from both perspectives, as well as how enslaved a wife was, even though she was "free". The author has captured the mood of the times, the hardships, total helplessness and hopelessness and the need for utter obedience and humility in order to survive the most distasteful circumstances and in order to put up with the most cruel and despicable people. The lives of slaves were incidental, unimportant to the masters, simply property. There was no justice, no recourse and utterly no regard for their needs or their humanity. They were unable to fight back and had to witness and bear the most awful punishments and deprivations, sometimes just at the whim of the master.
Through Lavinia's eyes, we experience the life of a slave and a free woman in the same body. The lesson we learn from Lavinia is that one's color does not make a difference. Like "The Boy In The Striped Pajamas", when stripped to our souls we are the same, only some of us are cruel and some of us are kind and it is not our color or religion that determines that, but the sickness in one's mind.