Sunny Hostin recommended this book by Marlen Suyapa Bodden as part of The View‘s Ladies get Lit segment and I thought it sounded interesting, so I requested the audiobook from my library. It took forever for my copy to come in, but I finally got a chance to listen to it a couple months ago.
The book is told from the perspective of two women: Sarah Campbell, a slave on a plantation in 1850s Alabama, and Theodora Allen, the wife of Cornelius Allen, who is Sarah’s owner and father.
Clarissa, the Allen’s youngest child and only daughter, is about the same age as Sarah and the two grow up together as playmates. When Theodora starts teaching Clarissa the basics of reading, writing, and math, Sarah manages to manipulate them into letting her take lessons with Clarissa. Of course, it’s very dangerous for all of them because it’s against the law to teach slaves to read and write, so none of them can let on that Sarah knows how to read and write.
Once Clarissa gets a tutor, Sarah is no longer allowed to join her during her lessons and becomes less of a playmate and more of a maid.
When Clarissa gets married, her father gives her Sarah as a wedding gift (hence the title). Because Clarissa finds herself “in the family way”, they have to rush the wedding to make sure the baby is born in wedlock, and in order to bribe her new husband to go along with the arrangement, Cornelius sends Isaac, his coachman who also happens to be Sarah’s husband, two other slaves, with the promise of 20 field hands after the baby is born.
But Clarissa’s new husband and in-laws abuse her by blocking her correspondence to and from her parents and having the local doctor bleed her and keep her doped up on laudanum. They also make Sarah work in the kitchen, even though she was supposed to have come with Clarissa to be her maid.
Then the baby is born seven months after Clarissa and her husband had sex, yet the doctor swears the baby is full term and it looks suspiciously like Isaac. Isaac is pale enough that he’s not suspected, but Clarissa’s new husband and in-laws accuse her of sleeping with another man who had been courting her and they claim the baby is his.
So, Clarissa’s husband sends Clarissa and her child (and Sarah) back to her parents with a letter explaining that the child is clearly not his and that they had all conspired to trick him into the marriage. Clarissa dies of complications from giving birth because her father, humiliated by her behavior, refuses to send a doctor for her. Sarah and her mother, Emmeline, who both know some medicinal herbs, do their best, but are unable to save her. Cornelius sends the bastard child away without telling Theodora where he sent it, and he orders everyone involved not to tell her.
Then Sarah makes a break for freedom, using a pass she’s written for herself. She also has her mom cut her hair very short and she wears men’s clothes and goes by the name, William. With some help from the underground railroad, she manages to make her way to a British island in the Caribbean, since the practice of kidnapping black people from the free states and selling them south into slavery is so commonplace that Sarah wouldn’t really be safe there.
Shortly after Sarah runs away, Cornelius dies and it turns out that, in his will, he freed Sarah, her mom, and her sister. Sarah’s already gone, but Cornelius’s attorney arranges for someone to escort them to a free territory.
He had also Willed Clarissa 1/4 of his estate and her widower demands that money belongs to him, even though he had “returned” Clarissa, with her child, to her parents. Theodora said he ended the marriage when he did that, but the attorney points out that sending Clarissa back to her parents did not legally end the marriage.
Theodora gets half the estate and her two sons are left to split 1/4 of the estate, which they’re really not happy about, and they’re not happy that their father freed three slaves in his will, so they sue for more, claiming their father was not of sound mind when he wrote the will and that the attorney (originally from the North) exerted undue influence over him and convinced him to free the slaves.
But the will included a clause that said that, if anyone should contest the will, they would get nothing, and the attorney successfully makes his case in court and gets the two men disinherited, leaving their share of the estate to go to Theodora.
Because of their sister’s scandal, the two men are both dismissed from their banking jobs, so Theodora suggests they learn to run the plantation so they can make their living that way.
With Clarissa dead, Theodora was named executor of Clarissa’s estate and Theodora and the attorney successfully manage to keep it out of her widower’s hands. Theodora then moves to New Orleans to be closer to her grandson, who’s been placed in an orphanage there. I was surprised that she didn’t adopt him, but merely made plans to visit him in the orphanage on a regular basis.
I found Theodora’s side of the story just as compelling as Sarah’s. She married Cornelius without knowing him very well, but fell in love (or at least in lust) with him. She was shocked and horrified when she realized he was sleeping with one of his slaves, and although she was jealous of Emmeline, she eventually realized that Emmeline didn’t have a say in the matter.
Any time Theodora tried to argue with her husband, he got violent with her, going so far as to rape her at least once. When Clarissa gets old enough to start thinking about marriage, Cornelius decides who her husband will be without taking into consideration what she wants. The man he ends up marrying her to is significantly older than she is, has already been married once, and his first wife shot herself while they were out riding. It was labeled a “shooting accident”, and an inquest found Julius innocent of any wrongdoing, but it’s still awfully suspicious and deeply disturbing that Theodora was completely powerless to prevent her daughter from being married to a man who, if not a murderer, is probably guilty of doing something to make is late wife decide death was preferable to living with him.
At the very end of the book, we find out that Sarah poisoned her father before he could change his will to exclude the clause about freeing her family. She also knew Isaac was sleeping with Clarissa, so when he was getting ready to run away, she wrote a note saying he was a slave and to return him to his owner for $200, then she told him it was a pass that would help him get out of the area safely. I’m not comfortable with that. If it’s clear that Emmeline had no choice when her owner called her to his rooms, how is it any different for Isaac to sleep with his owner? Just because the gender roles have swapped doesn’t do anything to change the power dynamic in this case. She still holds all the cards in that relationship and one wrong move on his part can mean she gets him whipped or worse.
One could argue that, if Isaac wasn’t willing, he would have told Sarah about it, but since rape involves so much shame and guilt, who could blame him for not wanting to tell his wife? Especially since, as a man, he’s just been emasculated, which adds another layer of guilt and shame to the whole affair. Many women don’t tell those closest to them when they’ve been raped because they feel so much shame, and that goes double for men who have been the targets of sexual assault.
What did you read/listen to this week? Anything else with some complicated power dynamics?