Based on actual court records, the story of a South African slave who was sentenced to death for murdering her son 50 years before the American Civil War.
Sila was so young when she was kidnapped from her village and sold into slavery that she doesn’t know what part of Africa she came from. Shipped to the Cape Colony, Sila was sold to Oumiesies (the Old Missus), who, after many years, granted Sila’s freedom in her will. Oumiesies’s son Theron defied his mother after her death, denying Sila her emancipation. Instead, she became the property of Van der Wat, a sadist whom Sila, now a grown woman with several children, calls the pig of Plettenberg Bay. Van der Wat beats his slaves, sells off their children and rapes others. Able to bear any cruelty except that done to her offspring, Sila stands up to him. Subsequently, she is charged with the murder of her son and sentenced to death. Only the discovery that Sila is pregnant saves her from hanging. The authorities transport her to Robben Island (where, 150 years later, Nelson Mandela would serve an 18-year sentence). Through days of hard labor—she and the other prisoners, mostly men, break rocks in a quarry—and nights of repeated rape by the guards, Sila remains defiant. She prays that her petition for freedom will reach the English King across the ocean and finds solace and communion in long conversations she conducts with her vision of Baro, the son she set free. South African–born Christiansë captures not only the breadth and complexity of Sila, a heroine for the ages, but also the moral crisis and political turmoil of 19th-century South Africa. Her masters are not all evil. Nor is Sila, as she herself admits, all good.
A gorgeous, devastating song of freedom that will inevitably be compared to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But it deserves to stand on its own.