Seven year old Lavinia is orphaned on the crossing from Ireland to America where her parents are to be indentured servants. Virginia plantation owner Captain Pyke, whom her parents were to work for, is quite unsure what to do with this sickly little girl he is left with. He takes her back to the plantation and sets her to work in the kitchen house alongside Belle. Lavinia is soon adopted into the family of slaves at the plantation and forms a strong bond with them all. She befriends the Pyke children Sally and Marshall, and endears herself to Mrs. Pyke who decides to seek a more proper role for her now that she is maturing. She is sent away from the slave family she loves for a proper education and matures into a lovely girl of 16. She becomes engaged to an older man but this falls through. She is reunited with a now grown Marshall and the two soon become close. Marshall asks Lavinia to marry him and she returns to the plantation she grew up on now as its mistress. Although Lavinia is delighted to return home, she soon learns that her role has changed and things cannot be as they once were when she was younger. She is also soon to discover the man that she married is not who she thought he is and her life and that of their young daughter is not going be as idyllic as she hoped it would be.
Written in a first person narrative that shifts point of view between Lavinia and Belle, Grissom deftly paints a picture of this time period and the dynamics of plantation life. I really liked how the reader gets to see both sides of the coin. We see Lavinia develop her strong attachments to Mamma Mae, Ben, Belle, Beattie and the rest of the slave community she comes to regard as family and how she struggles to define her place. She is one of them and yet she is not because she is white. We also get to hear Belle’s side. We learn that contrary to the opinions of the rest of the Pyke family, she is not Captain Pyke’s mistress but his illegitimate daughter. This causes much animosity and turmoil and Captain Pyke’s decision to not reveal the true nature of his relationship with Belle leads to disastrous consequences. As a reader I felt sadness for the plight of both of these characters and kept reading on hoping they would reach a happy ending. Unfortunately both Lavinia and Belle continue to experience a horrific turn of events-Lavinia’s marriage to the truly awful Marshall and Belle’s forced separation from her child. I felt close to tears reading of the horrid treatment of the slaves at the hands of Marshall and Rankin, the overseer.
I also appreciated that the author left bits of the story to the imagination such as the true nature of the relationship between Marshall and Rankin which causes Marshall to develop into such a cold human being. This is not a happy story by any means but it definitely a richly imagined emotionally evoking one and one of the better books that I have read this year.This book is from my own personal library