Phelps and Grimes’ debut tells the story of how Charles Knight, the heir apparent to Coffin Point, a large South Carolina plantation, was raised during the supposedly idyllic years before the Civil War.
The tale centers on Madeline Knight’s decision to abandon her disappointing son to the care of Munday, the nurturing “Big House” slave. Munday becomes Charles’ surrogate mother, and her daughter, Helen, is Charles’ only childhood companion. The authors skillfully weave in historical details about slavery, plantation life, national and regional politics as well as a little romance and intrigue. The Southern drawl and slaves’ Gullah dialect add authenticity, as does the presence of witchcraft and other cultural details about slaves and their privileged owners. Some strategic twists and turns hold the reader’s interest, and the characters—with the exception of the status-seeking, power-hungry Madeline—earn the reader’s empathy. Charles, Munday and Helen leave South Carolina for Boston, via war-torn Washington, D.C., where Charles confronts his long-lost mother. This bold step releases him to pursue freedom with his true family. The trio rejoices at their arrival in Boston, but racial segregation and second-class status dim their hope for freedom. Despite his happy marriage to Helen, Charles remains enslaved by dreams of returning to Coffin Point. Their experience brings readers to a new understanding of freedom, nudging us to examine our own forms of slavery—to possessions, power and status. Yet amid this serious thinking, it’s difficult to overlook some of the novel’s shortcomings. The timeline leading up to Ft. Sumter is mixed-up, and it is somewhat hard to believe Charles’ intimate knowledge of the Charleston Harbor given his sheltered upbringing. Straightening out these details and correcting some misspellings and syntax errors will make this enjoyable tale all the more engaging. Initially, the abrupt ending is disappointing, but upon reflection, readers will come to understand the brevity.
The period detail, poignant story and credible characters make this a pleasurable, satisfying read.