Wilma’s historical novel of slavery in the American South rings with the power of its first-person narrator, the real-life Phyllis Lewis.
The story begins with two letters—one from a Lewis family lawyer presenting the book’s manuscript and the other from Lewis herself as she bequeaths her story to her children as she nears death. A parentless, light-skinned slave, Lewis is very much an outsider from the beginning. Soon after her owner David Morgan moves his plantation from Virginia to Kentucky, Lewis gains entry to his home and Morgan begins to manipulate her life, first buying her a husband, then, after the couple has produced children, selling the husband off. Upon Morgan’s murder, Lewis is accused and held by authorities, though she’s ultimately returned to the custody of Morgan’s wife—but not before her slave community, including her children, is shipped off on a Mississippi-bound boat. Mrs. Morgan turns out to be a kind woman who solidifies in Lewis a yearning for Christianity and also takes her to Ohio where she frees Lewis to find work on her own. This new frontier offers Lewis a setting to examine the severe trials and losses in her life, to continue her education and to write down her story. The narrative Wilma recreates is based on fact, his interest piqued by learning the story of Mr. Morgan, an ancestor. Straddling the world of fact and fiction is tricky and leads to the story’s lack of tension, producing a sense that the book is largely a barrage of events, one after the next. Overall, what seem to be missing are the sensory details to pull a reader into the world the author creates. Still, Wilma’s evocation of Lewis’ voice is most impressive in the ways that this character manages to find strength in the bleakest of situations.
A new slave narrative that finds hope in the least expected places.