In this historical novel by Bonneau (To destroy you is no loss, 1992) a young, biracial girl in South Carolina struggles with her status as the heiress to a plantation.
It’s October 1807, just three months before Alexandra de Gambia’s 16th birthday. For the duration of her young life, she’s thought of a black girl named Lulu as her playmate. Now, as she grows older, she must confront the fact that their relationship is that of mistress and slave. Heaven’s Hill, the plantation owned by her parents, who live apart, is divided in two. Her biracial mother, Josephine, rules over the big house and its slaves, and her father, a prosperous, black landowner who goes by the nickname “The Panther,” lives with other free people of color in a village that’s a replica of his Gambian ancestors’ home. The trans-Atlantic slave trade is on the brink of being outlawed, and Alexandra is torn between two worlds: Her mother wants her to “pass” in so-called “high-born” white society, but she also wants Lulu and the other slaves to get their freedom. Alexandra overhears local white men planning to burn down her father’s stables because they think that it “Ain’t right for a darkie to own all this land,” and then a brutally racist new sheriff arrives. Will she be able to bridge the gap between black and white townsfolk? This is a riveting story that addresses the often overlooked and controversial topic of free black people owning slaves in America. Bonneau is a skilled storyteller who also ably weaves African spirituality into her plot. Alexandra’s internal battles with an African ghost, which visits her when she’s weak or fearful, are fascinating: “ ‘You don’t have the courage to do this thing,’ the Ahoelra whispers. ‘I do have the courage,’ she whispers back.” Alexandra is a tenacious heroine who’s easy to root for, and the author elegantly articulates her precarious position between white and black society. Overall, this novel explores issues of equality and personal freedom in thought-provoking ways.
Sharp writing, an original plot, and a strong female protagonist make for an engrossing read.