Wiggins (Why Should I Nurse My Baby, 2012) examines the dynamics between master and slave in this novel of the antebellum South.
As word of Nat Turner’s Rebellion spreads through Southampton County, Virginia, plantation owner John Parker sets about defending his family and neighbors from the coming insurrection while praying that his own slaves remain loyal. Thanks to a persuasive ally—Hannah, a house slave, midwife, and matriarch who “knew who fed her”—the Parker slaves resist the temptation to take up arms against their masters. The rebellion is soon quelled, but the new peace is not as amicable as the old: whites regard the slaves with increased suspicion, and the number of innocent slaves slaughtered in the revolt and its aftermath only reinforces the necessity of freedom for the unemancipated. In the decades following the rebellion, the situation improves for some. Hannah’s son Samuel is granted his freedom, a change of position that allows him to join in an unexpected business venture with his former owner. Even so, the old order continues to crumble under the pressures of inequity. Disenfranchised whites, ambitious freemen, agitated slaves, and conflicted plantation owners vie to uphold or overturn the status quo against the backdrop of the approaching war. An ancient Native American legend about a glowing stone that an old Nottoway chief cast into a river long ago figures into the narrative. Wiggins’ prose remains workmanlike, focusing on plot and character with little interest in mood or detail. Her omniscient narrator jumps from player to player within chapters, ensuring that the reader always knows what every relevant character feels at any point. The result highlights the self-serving nature of every political position: slaves who have comfortable situations avoid conflicts, masters tend to think of themselves as benevolent. While always showing the horrendous nature of slavery, Wiggins manages to offer an explanation of how the system can be supported by rational—even moral—people. The reader comes away marveling at how we are all simultaneously the stalwarts and the victims of our moment in history.
An imperfect yet compelling volume that evokes life in Virginia during slavery.