Sunday, November 3, 2013

Review: The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden

From this vantage point in history we tend to have very set ideas about what life on a southern plantation in the time of slavery looked like. And yet the reality was probably far more complicated than we can begin to imagine.  One of the things that complicates the picture we have of slavery is the tangled web of relationship and family on these plantations where bi-racial children of the white master were born into slavery and considered property, where the closest age companion of a white child is likely to be a slave and potential half-sibling, where slaves are not legally allowed to marry but are encouraged to have children to increase the plantation's human holdings, and where a white mistress is also legally subjugated to her husband's will. In Marlen Suyapa Bodden's debut novel, The Wedding Gift, all of these things combine to create an intriguing tale of cruelty and cunning, desperation and deceit, survival and self-determination.

On the Allen plantation in Alabama, the master, Cornelius Allen, is a capricious and intermittently cruel man. He carries on a long time affair with house slave Emmeline, fathering her second daughter, Sarah. Only months later, daughter Clarissa is born to Cornelius and his long-suffering wife, Theodora. And so these two half-sisters grow up together at first as companions and later as maidservant and mistress. When they are children, Sarah is included in all that Clarissa does, including Clarissa's schooling.  So Sarah, possessed of a quick and agile mind, learns to read and write. And although Sarah chafes at her captivity from that moment in time when she first understands it, harboring a desire to escape and trying to learn as much as she can about how to go about it, she is very quiet about her ability to read and write, knowing that this is perhaps an even bigger crime than asking others about running.

As Sarah and Clarissa grow and mature, their experiences diverge greatly although Sarah's fate remains intimately tied to Clarissa's. Sarah can never for one moment forget that she is a slave and that her life is not her own. Her mother, Emmeline, nor her sister, Belle, are in charge of their own fates either and they are all subject to the whims of Cornelius Allen. As odious and abusive as he is, when Clarissa marries, he gives Sarah and Sarah's husband to his daughter, putting Sarah in an even more untenable position than she faced as an illegitimate slave daughter on the Allen plantation. And when Clarissa's hasty marriage exposes a shameful secret, Sarah must look to herself for more courage and resilience than she ever thought she possessed.

The novel is narrated by two women, the slave, Sarah, and the white mistress, Theodora Allen, giving an inside perspective both from the point of view of one enslaved and of the seemingly privileged lady of the plantation. And yet both record great heartache as they recount their oddly parallel tales. They both might be under the thumb of Cornelius and the magnitude of their suffering is certainly different, but they each find a spirit and a resolve that carries them through to a life they might never have imagined. It was interesting to see each of their lives from the inside but both Sarah and Theodora came off as fairly distant emotionally. At the most emotionally fraught moments in their lives, they only reported what they felt, it didn't come through in the writing. Much of the action is reported from a journalistic remove as well and all of the characters have one indistinguishable voice in the narration. The action itself was fairly predictable although the final pages offer some unexpected revelations which were not quite adequately foreshadowed in the preceding pages and which seem a bit out of character. A couple of plot threads drive the story for a time but then just peter out. Despite these weaknesses, the novel is interesting in its take on slavery and the place of women and while it doesn't really break any new ground, those who enjoy historical fiction set in the antebellum south will appreciate this glimpse into this fictional plantation and the tides and undercurrents that drove the lives of those living there.

Thanks to Staci from Wunderkind PR for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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