Irish orphan finds a new family among slaves in Grissom’s pulse-quickening debut.
Lavinia is only six in 1791, when her parents die aboard ship and the captain, James Pyke, brings her to work as an indentured servant at Tall Oaks, his Virginia plantation. Pyke’s illegitimate daughter Belle, chief cook (and alternate narrator with Lavinia), takes reluctant charge of the little white girl. Belle and the other house slaves, including Mama Mae and Papa George, their son Ben, grizzled Uncle Jacob and youngsters Beattie and Fanny, soon embrace Lavinia as their own. Otherwise, life at Tall Oaks is grim. Pyke’s wife Martha sinks deeper into laudanum addiction during the captain’s long absences. Brutal, drunken overseer Rankin starves and beats the field slaves. The Pykes’ 11-year-old son Marshall “accidentally” causes his young sister Sally’s death, and Ben is horribly mutilated by Rankin. When Martha, distraught over Sally, ignores her infant son Campbell, Lavinia bonds with the baby, as well as with Sukey, daughter of Campbell’s black wet nurse Dory. Captain Pyke’s trip to Philadelphia to find a husband for Belle proves disastrous; Dory and Campbell die of yellow fever, and Pyke contracts a chronic infection that will eventually kill him. Marshall is sent to boarding school, but returns from time to time to wreak havoc, which includes raping Belle, whom he doesn’t know is his half-sister. After the captain dies, through a convoluted convergence of events, Lavinia marries Marshall and at 17 becomes the mistress of Tall Oaks. At first her savior, Marshall is soon Lavinia’s jailer. Kindly neighboring farmer Will rescues several Tall Oaks slaves, among them Ben and Belle, who, unbeknownst to all, was emancipated by the captain years ago. As Rankin and Marshall outdo each other in infamy, the stage is set for a breathless but excruciatingly attenuated denouement.
Melodramatic for sure, but the author manages to avoid stereotypes while maintaining a brisk pace.