One of those books you read in one sitting with the hair slowly rising on the back of your neck. Slavery in the American South seldom has seemed so real or so horrific. Every awful story you’ve ever heard or read is right here, seen through the eyes of Sarah, the master’s daughter by Emmeline, his slave mistress. I couldn’t help but think of Sally Hemings, in durance vile to Thomas Jefferson for her whole life and forced to bear not one but eight of his children, all of them property and subject to sale whenever the master needed ready cash to buy a few more books.
The most painful thing to endure among many is Emmeline’s persistent terror, the fear she feels every moment of every day that Sarah will say something that will get them all killed or worse, sold. “Don’t say that, baby,” is her constant refrain, and it doesn’t take long for you to feel her fear, too. It’s exhausting, and it is debilitating to intellect and human emotion, too, and that’s just from reading about it. What was it like to live through it? I’m grateful I can only imagine.
Things are bad enough at Allen House, where Cornelius sells Belle, Emmeline’s other daughter, to punish Emmeline for leaving his bed. The rape scene leaves me, as such scenes always do, not only nauseated but bewildered as to how men can do these things and look themselves in the mirror the next morning. This was two college kids down from the North for a spree. They use these girls like Kleenex. They’re the ethnic cleansers in Bosnia-Hercegovinia. They’re Boko Haram. And when spring break is over, off they go back to Harvard and I’m sure later become giants of industry and pillars of their communities.
And from this Eden of the Allen plantation Cornelius gives his white daughter his black daughter as a wedding gift and they travel to Clarissa’s new husband’s home, where of course things are impossibly even worse. Clarissa, who has to be one of the most clueless women in literature, loses no time in exacerbating their situation by idiotically bad behavior, and Sarah is forced to run, although I’m pretty sure she was always going to run anyway.
Sarah’s narrative is interspersed with excerpts from the journal of Theodora, Cornelius’ wife. One of the most hideous passages is the conversation Theodora has with her friend, Mrs. Tutwiler, about Cornelius fathering Sarah.
“My dear, these men are such rascals, and I fear that their decadence will be the ruin of us all. But what can we do? We can ask them to change their ways for the sake of their immortal souls, and we may appeal to their sense of duty, but don’t you believe that a male is innately a different being than a woman? We do not have their uncontrollable urges, after all. We are most interested in pursuing what is beautiful and ethereal, not what is physical and coarse. Dear Theo, your husband isn’t the only one; Mr. Tutwiler, by my count, has at least eight children, with field hands, no less. But if when you add eight to the balance sheet at the prices they fetch at auction, when you reflect upon it it is a benefit to us, is it not?”
Rape as a method of improving the bottom line. Such rascals, indeed. Slavery didn’t just enslave a race, it dumbed down a gender, too. When Theodora finds her grandson, she won’t even take him out of the orphanage to live with her. Of her lover she writes, “…It did not matter to me what they said, however, because no one could have forced me to stop, and I knew that widowhood shielded me from societal censure.” For her lover, but not her grandson. I won’t spoil, but at the ending of this book it is impossible to judge Sarah’s sins as any worse than Theodora’s.
The Civil War never looked so necessary. A difficult but essential read.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.