A Civil War–era historical saga that chronicles a couple as they go from Cumberland Island, Georgia, to Groton, Connecticut, by 2011 Georgia Author of the Year McCash (Almost to Eden, 2010).
In antebellum Georgia, beautiful Elisabeth (aka “Zabette”) is the descendant of generations of slave owners and comely slaves. Raised primarily by her white grandmother, French-American Marguerite Bernardey, Zabette straddles the two lifestyles. Aware of her granddaughter’s delicate position, Marguerite exacts a promise from her white neighbor, Robert Stafford, that he’ll prevent Zabette from being sold after her death. Indeed, Stafford takes Zabette into his home to live there as his wife, long before her grandmother dies. A successful planter and businessman, he refuses to allow their six children to be raised as slaves, instead sending them to Connecticut where they can pass as white and live as free people. Eventually, Zabette joins them, while Robert remains in the South, growing increasingly bitter over his inability to possess all of Cumberland Island. Later, when his Southern fortunes are decimated by the Civil War, he allows his disappointment to cloud his relationship with Zabette. This novel transcends what could have been a clichéd tale of a master/slave affair, instead showing the truly tenuous position of African-Americans in the South before and after the war. McCash shows how Zabette’s intelligence and devotion to her children cause her to question Robert’s decisions, and how her long residence in the North educates her on issues that her upbringing never made her think about. In contrast, Robert evolves from a socially awkward, sympathetic character to a heartless, autocratic father to a sad, embittered old man. His deep resentment of the neighboring Cumberland Island planter, Phineas Nightingale, seems unwarranted, and his eventual cruelty toward Zabette inexcusable. Minor inconsistencies in the timeline—Robert is 69 in 1851, but only 67 in 1858—and a lack of character development among Zabette’s younger three children only slightly mar this otherwise well-composed novel.
A sweeping planter-slave tale in the antebellum South, as seen through the prism of 21st-century sensibilities and sensitivities.