” Without warning, all of my fear transformed to rage. The insanity of it all! How dare he! Who was this man to so control my life? Each day I was forced to bear my husband’s intolerable behavior, and with Beattie I was forced once again to see the results of it. I was as enslaved as all the others. I could not fight back the anger that coursed through me. ” (Ch.47, Lavinia, p.300)
In 1791, Irish 7-year-old Lavinia voyages to America. On that journey, both of her parents died. The trauma of loss has also compromised her memory. Upon arrival she is indentured to the owner of a Southern plantation. Thus the little girl finds herself living in the plantation’s kitchen house with the slaves. Under the care of Belle Pyke, the half-white, illegitimate daughter of the plantation owner, Lavinia becomes deeply bonded to her adopted family despite her white skin.
As a consequence, I learned quickly to stand with him on any subject. Fortunately, making myself amenable was not foreign to me, as I had lived this way for much of my life. (Ch.35, Lavinia, p.233)
So Belle has become a surrogate mother to Lavinia, along with the commanding big Mama Mae, whose children have become close companions to Lavinia. Soon our attention is directed to the lives on the plantation, where the white overseer has taken half of the workers’ food rations and trades them for liquor for himself. He also becomes the conspirator to the young master, Marshall, who has been sexually molested by his tutor, Mr Waters. Traumatized and becoming deranged, Marshall takes it all out on the women around the plantation, especially Belle. When he succeeds his father as the new owner, the story takes a sudden turn to disaster.
Mama looked at me hopefully . . . But everything felt wrong. Since my arrival, I had felt an uneasiness taking over, and somehow, this room epitomized that disquiet. This did not feel like my home. True, it was lovely, but it did not feel like the home I remembered, the one I had envisioned. My homecoming was nothing I had hoped for. (Ch.37, Lavinia, p.245)
An unexpected turn of events leads to the disastrous marriage of Marshall and Lavinia. The troubled marriage sets her against her kitchen-house family and her loyalties put in question. Disappointingly, the book loses its footing when it focuses more on Marshall’s madness and cruelty than the racial injustices on the plantation. A dozen bastards later these poor women—raped, emotionally harmed, and some even murdered—finally realize Marshall is not right in his head. He has gambled away the money and threatens to sell the slaves. The cycle of violence—infidelity, rape, incest, spouse abuse, child abuse, brutal beatings—perpetuates itself. The shame and secrecy spawn misunderstandings that lead to more violence. To make a long story short, the book has turned into soap opera. Lavinia’s narrative dominates, but it’s Belle’s more succinct perspective that lends a more objective picture. The book keeps getting more incredulous and ludicrous, almost too tragic to even make sense. I understand the point that the idea of family transcends skin colors and blood ties, but the overdone drama makes me go from general sadness to numbness and then apathy. Grissom has an ambitious concept but her plot just doesn’t hold up.
Note: That the endnote reveals how she wrote this book from a vision is shocking. In it Grissom says that the “voices” she hears tell her “their story” and she writes it. She also said, “I tried on a number of occasions to change some of the events (those that I found profoundly disturbing), but the story would stop when I did that, so I forged ahead to write what was revealed.” Is she saying she has no control over the overdone violence and the cliches?
370 pp. Simon & Schuster. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]