A fire in her soulby Dawn Goldsmith
Often those of us who enjoy exploring the history of the Antebellum South and Civil War era forget that for all the romance of the Old South, many condoned behaviors that were otherwise railed against by the prevailing religion and moral laws. Yet those indiscretions, the decadence, were accepted without question. Often the master forced himself sexually on any slave he chose. He also manipulated and controlled his wife, daughters, even sons and heirs, just as completely as any slave. The whole system hinged upon the benevolence or the violence of the master and his designated overseers. The power of those plantation owners provides excellent examples of that quotation from Lord Acton. In a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, he wrote: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men."
This historical novel, based upon a court case in nineteenth-century Alabama, invites readers inside the plantation, the wealth, the family, the relationships. Two women, a house slave named Sarah Campbell and her mistress Theodora, both of the Allen plantation, narrate. The simplicity of the narrators' voices, so controlled, so modulated, reads more like a report or diary entries than crafted fiction. The almost childlike voices come close to demeaning the character and fortitude of the narrators. But their stories are compelling regardless of the simple - sometimes stilted - language.
Sarah has a fire in her soul to be free. She is the illegitimate daughter of the master, Cornelius Allen, and Emmaline, a house servant and the master's sex slave. Her mother, given some standing as the family cook and the master's concubine, attempts to improve her lot and put an end to the nightly visits to the master's room. In retaliation the master sells her older daughter, Belle, to the owner of another plantation, where she is forced to work in the fields from sunrise to sunset and endure the attention of the plantation owner's sons. She eventually returns home beaten and pregnant. Sarah and Emmaline grow to hate the master.
Continuing the moral depravity, Sarah serves her half-sister Clarissa, Theodora's daughter. Just as slaves were bought and sold, told who they could marry and who they could not, Clarissa was also "bought and sold" by her father to benefit his community standing, business network, and ultimately increase profits. Cornelius quickly marries Clarissa off to a man even more depraved than himself, giving Sarah to his daughter as a wedding gift.
Theodora Allen, an educated woman of good breeding survives by producing sons and looking the other way. In small ways she attempts to protect the women in her realm, but even as mistress of the plantation, she is powerless. In an effort to put an end to her husband's 'dalliances' Theodora tells a friend, Mrs. Tutwiler, about the child her husband fathered. Mrs. Tutwiler replies:
My dear, these men are such rascals, and I fear that their decadence will be the ruin of us all.... Your husband isn't the only one; Mr. Tutwiler, by my count, has at least eight children, with field hands, no less. But if you add eight to the balance sheet at the prices they fetch at auction, when you reflect up on it, it is a benefit to us, is it not?
Because they are deprived access to the world, women of the Antebellum speak from a limited perspective on the culture and broader environment that impacts their lives. It seems too convenient to say that moral decay led to the decline of the South, but it is interesting to consider. But even without a broader view, the author captures the historical essence of slavery. Readers will feel the characters' frustration, fear, and helplessness concerning their imprisonment, whether through marriage or slavery.
Too often today's world excludes thoughts of slavery. It appears to be an antebellum term. Yet when comparing today to the "slave age" of The United States - the century of the American Revolution and the years leading up to the American Civil War - slavery has escalated, not disappeared. Marlen Bodden wrote in the Huffington Post in February 2010 that today "there are at least 27 million slaves worldwide, more slaves than at any other time in history, more than during the Transatlantic Slave Trade, when 11 million Africans were kidnapped and taken to the New World."
Not only has the slave trade flourished, the same methods that were used to keep slaves from escaping the plantations are used today: violence and the threat of violence. This truth alone makes this novel relevant.
The author, a lawyer based in New York, maintains a website complete with some of the history behind this novel.