McLain’s character-driven debut historical novel blends a tale of ill-fated love with a scathing indictment of slavery.
In 1833, 22-year-old Cornelius Carson is a slave owner who buys a second slave for his small cotton farm in Louisiana’s Bayou Cocodrie: a small, 10-year-old girl, whom he names Jenny, who looks frail and speaks no English. She seems barely strong enough to work the fields alongside the aging Malachi, his other slave, who’s been on his farm for three years. Cornelius is courting a beautiful woman named Stephanie Coqterre of Natchez, Mississippi, and when her wealthy stepfather, Emile, refuses to give them permission to marry, they elope. However, the young bride is unprepared for life in a two-room cabin without house servants. Thus begins the self-destruction of a family—a story that makes up much of the novel’s plot. However, the heart of this narrative lies in McLain’s in-depth portrayals of Jenny and Malachi, and of the slaves on the Coqterre plantation. Jenny, who just recently arrived from Africa on a slave ship, was separated from her brother when he was sold to another family. Malachi, now with his third owner, comes from Virginia: “I was sold away from my mammy when I was twelve years old,” he tells Jenny. “And I never seen my mammy from that day to this.” As Jenny learns English and becomes a competent field worker, McLain portrays how she and Malachi interact, showing the unusual familiarity of speech between them, and how, in quiet times, they share their longing for freedom. The author also creates vivid moments of tenderness, such as when Malachi carves a doll for Jenny, or even when Cornelius tends to her blistered hands. She also effectively depicts incidents of unabashed cruelty on the larger plantations, such as when a young boy has his foot cut off when he tries to escape, or when wives are sold without their husbands.
A strong, often poignant illustration of slavery’s destructiveness.