A debut historical novel tells the story of a mixed-race family trying to secure an inheritance from its white patriarch before the Civil War.
As the Willis family disembarks from the Cincinnati quay in 1855, it attracts some strange looks from passersby. The members are racially mixed—Elijah Willis is white, his wife (and former slave), Amy, is black, and their seven children run the spectrum from fair to dark. The stares become worse when Elijah suddenly grabs his chest, falls to the ground, and dies. In Elijah’s pocket is his will, which bequeaths his entire estate to Amy and their children. Unfortunately for Amy, most of that estate is in the form of land—land in South Carolina held by Elijah’s avaricious white relatives (“This was a sizable fortune for the time, amounting to more than three thousand acres of land valued at upwards of $150,000, not including cash and furnishings”). Now Amy, with the help of a sympathetic team of Cincinnati lawyers, will have to wage a legal battle against the entrenched forces of racism and slavery to secure what should be hers by right: her husband’s material legacy, and recognition that her family is as legitimate as any other. Based on a true story, this novel covers the full history of Elijah and Amy’s relationship, as well as the case that took the Willis family all the way to the South Carolina Supreme Court. Stucky writes with a historian’s eye for detail, taking care to recreate the voice (and minutiae) of the times. “Since last I wrote,” goes a letter from Elijah, “we have endured a political uprising designed to malign and intimidate me; the birth of a son; the ravages of yellow fever on my plantation; a bout of excessive rain nearly ruining the cotton harvest.” At 750 pages, the book is a doorstop. Every epic has its down moments, and there are a few passages here that feel a bit dry. That said, the comprehensive nature of Stucky’s inquiry into this little-known incident in American history, breathing life and color into its biographical details, is such an immersive experience that the reader should stay with the story all the way to the epilogue.
An impressively executed novel of love and the law in antebellum America.