I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I flew through it, which I didn’t really expect with a book about colonial Virginia and slavery. It’s a fast-moving story even though it spans years.
But I have to say, something about the writing fizzled for me by the end. The first half of the book is really character-rich. Light on action, but heavy on relationships and personal growth. Then the main character becomes an adult, and I felt much of that was lost.
The story centers around Lavinia, a seven-year-old girl who comes to a Virginia plantation as an indentured servant in the 1790s. Lavinia is an Irish immigrant whose parents died during the ship voyage. When the ship docks in Virginia, her older brother is sold to another family, and Lavinia comes home with the Captain.
In many ways, Lavinia is fortunate. She works hard as a servant but is never mistreated. She’s adopted by the family of slaves that work in the Big House and the Kitchen House — Mama Mae, Papa George, Belle, Dory, Ben, and twins Beattie and Fanny, who are Lavinia’s age. Lavinia grows up as a servant but is fairly ignorant of the differences between the races. Her slave “family” loves her and cares for her.
At the same time, the lives of the slaves are complicated by the Captain’s frequent absences, his wife Martha’s dependency on laudanum, and the violent and racist overseer Rankin. The slaves understand what Lavinia does not — that they cannot depend on the Captain or Martha for humane treatment. They can be beaten, raped, sold, or tortured at any time. The Captain and Martha may be on the humane side as far as slave-owners go, but in a conflict between the slaves and a white person, the white person will win. This makes the slaves’ relationships both precarious and precious — children die often and slaves can be sold or kept apart at the will of their owners. Mama teaches her children to ingratiate themselves with the Captain and his wife just to survive and stay together.
The story is told primarily from Lavinia’s perspective, but Grissom tells some of the story from Belle’s view. Belle is an attractive young slave who works in the Kitchen House and is sort of a mother to Lavinia. Belle illustrates the vulnerability and powerlessness of the life of a female slave. Belle loves Ben, one of the slaves, but can’t be with him. She’s actually the daughter of the captain, and he won’t stand for her being with anyone else. As a slave she is subject to rape, unwanted pregnancy, and has no say in her own relationships. In fact, Ben is likely to be killed just for being near her. The slaves live at the edge of violence and death all the time.
The use of two narrators is important because Lavinia is kept in the dark about a lot of things. Being white in a black family only makes her feel alone and separate — she has no friends who are white, and doesn’t like to be treated differently from her black family. You understand that she’s being naive when she wishes to be black, but her wish is understandable. As a reader you know that as she grows, her life will be further wrenched from the family she loves, and you feel for her.
Grissom does a great job creating relationships among the family members, getting into the heads of her two narrators. I think her dialogue was a strong point, especially the dialect used by the slaves. Dialect is always a clear indicator of status and education. I liked Grissom’s emphasis on names to differentiates character’s roles and how they are seen by others. For example, Lavinia is ‘Abinia to the slave adults, and “Binny” to some of the children. She calls Mae “Mama” and George “Papa” but when she returns to the plantation as an adult she’s forbidden to call them that.
Grissom also takes care in describing the home life of the slaves and white family on the plantation. The lives of the slaves center around their roles in the kitchen house and the “big house”. There is little political detail, but she explains that the plantation is in Southern Virginia, far from any cities. I do wish there was more historical detail throughout the book, but that’s just my preference with a historical novel. For example, I would have liked to know more about perceptions about Irish immigrants at this time, or what it meant in society for someone to be an indentured servant. Lavinia’s ability to mingle with the upper classes seemed a little suspect to be me, but I don’t know.
As a girl Lavinia is kind, loving, and sensitive, but as an adult she is a disappointment. I can’t decide if this is intentional on the part of the author, or if I just feel disappointed in the writing. Lavinia as a young adult receives education, status, and love, just because she’s white. But instead of doing something with her privileges she becomes self-centered and weak. As an adult she should understand the world around her much better than she does. I understand that the slaves try to hide from her the most horrible aspects of their lives, but still, she lives with them and should at least question things more. Instead she makes foolish assumptions and bad decisions. She sees everything in terms of herself and her needs, even when her former family needs her the most. In fact they end up protecting and sheltering her at the risk of their own lives. I understand that as a woman she’s mostly powerless, but at some point she loses my sympathy.
I also felt that the scenes toward the end of the book felt a little forced, like the writer needed a bunch of action and a plot device to tie things together.
For a first novel, this one has some faults but it was also a really interesting read with vivid characters and one that really drew me into the lives of the characters. As a Virginia resident and a frequent visitor to Williamsburg, I enjoyed reading about my state and this time in its history. The book is at times troubling and violent, but all with a purpose. I just think the last third could have been stronger, and I wish that Lavinia as a character had been stronger.