In Colonial Virginia, a recently widowed Englishwoman confronts slavery and her implicit part in it.
Set near the beginning of the 18th century, this debut novel introduces the resilient and compassionate Betsy Randall. Aboard a ship bound for her brother Robert’s tobacco farm and estate in Virginia, she is joined by her husband, Isaac, and their three young children. While she’s uncertain if their trip from England is an advisable one, her trepidations are quickly replaced with horror when pirates overtake the ship, kill its captain, and murder her husband and children. Barliant is a deft, unsentimental writer, and scenes are portrayed with unflinching tenor. One of the pirates, the ex-slave Josiah, keeps Betsy under his protection, though the pirated ship is eventually overtaken by the Royal Navy, and she loses Josiah, believing him killed. After an equally appalling final leg of her journey—Capt. Bennett, commander of their rescuers, sexually assaults her—she arrives in Virginia and sees the horrible conditions aboard a slave ship. After spending some time in Williamsburg, she eventually arrives at her dead brother’s estate, where she is shocked by the violence and iniquity of an industry dependent on slave labor. She comes to find that one of the slaves, Deborah, was her brother’s lover and mother to two of his children, whom she alarmingly finds listed simply as slaves in his ledger. It’s a complicated, engaging, and ultimately moving narrative, though it could do with a stronger protagonist. While readers will share in Betsy’s disapproval of the world into which she is cast, they might also wish she took a more active role in it. Too often she plays the victim, shuffled from one scene to another; though her perspective is an excellent filter for what goes on in those scenes, too infrequently she’s an actor in them. Still, the writing is assured and affecting, and Barliant does fine work exploring this troubled era without becoming bogged down in its details.
A smart, multifaceted, and well-written historical novel that asks important questions of morality and action.