A debut novel about slaves and masters, mistresses and wives, set in antebellum Alabama.
Bodden’s debut features two narrators: Sarah Campbell, a young mulatto slave, and Theodora, wife of Cornelius Allen, owner of Allen Estates, a large cotton plantation worked by hundreds of slaves. Sarah is Allen’s daughter by his longtime slave mistress, Emmeline. Theodora, a gentlewoman, is at first in love with her new husband, but after the birth of their children (the youngest, Clarissa, is born shortly after Sarah), a combination of his alcoholism, increasingly violent behavior and infidelity quickly sours their marriage, and she takes refuge in the arts and her secret correspondence with a handsome poet. When Allen marries Clarissa off to Cromwell, a brutal plantation owner who can advance Allen's business interests (as a sub rosa investor in the now-illegal slave ships), the stage is set for melodrama. Clarissa has become pregnant by a rival suitor, and after a hurried wedding, Cromwell agrees, in return for financial concessions, to acknowledge the child as his. He changes his mind when he realizes, at Clarissa’s “premature” birthing of a full-term son, that he cannot possibly be the father, and he sends Clarissa back home in disgrace. Meanwhile, Sarah, whom Cromwell seeks to coerce into concubinage as Allen did her mother, plots her escape. Thanks to Theodora’s tutoring, she learned to read and write and is an excellent forger of slave passes. Upon Clarissa's return to Allen Estates, her enraged father takes away her child, and she dies of childbed fever shortly thereafter, whereupon Allen, knowing his good name is tarnished all over the South, drinks himself to death. As Theodora seeks her missing grandson, Cromwell threatens to sue and ruin the entire family. Sarah, in men’s disguise, is making her way inexorably toward the port of Mobile, dodging slave catchers at every turn.
Plodding prose, leaden dialogue and a gratuitous trick ending undermine what is otherwise a fraught and entertaining story enhanced with convincing period detail.