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“Barbara Chase-Riboud should be praised for attempting such a difficult and important story. . . . She creates some horribly memorable scenes.” —The New York Times Book Review
“A bravura act of outrage and grace . . . written with shattering passion.” —The Boston Globe
“Disturbing and heartbreaking. . . . Illustrates how racial cruelty can be tightly wrapped in a shroud of scientific reason.” —San Francisco Chronicle
“A splendid epic of a young woman’s life that later became a country’s touchstone. . . . Rescues this human being from her ‘freakish’ place in history and gives her life the respect it deserves.” —The Times-Picayune
“[Hottentot Venus] conjures the pain of some of the most sensitive and hurtful relations between the powerful and the powerless whatever their color, whatever their gender. . . . In this chilling and mournful novel, Chase-Riboud brings back to life a woman whose existence as a symbol has obscured her essence.” –The Washington Post
“Ultimately Hottentot Venus is about resurrection. For through the novel, Barbara Chase-Riboud has restored Sarah Baartman’s life, her name, her voice, her humanity.” –The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Baartman’s brief, eventful saga is chronicled in harrowing factual and fictional detail in Chase-Riboud’s well-researched, unsparing book.” –Seattle Times
“Barbara Chase-Riboud, best known as the author of Sally Hemings tackles another hot-button historical incident in Hottentot Venus.” –Essence
“Barbara Chase-Riboud’s extraordinary novel recovers this riveting story of cultural voyeurism and physical cruelty with unblinking historical verisimilitude, ennobling pathos, and unerring narrative pace. This is an important book that lodges in the conscience like a nacre.” –David Levering-Lewis, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963
“Chase-Riboud plunges right into Baartman’s ambivalent heart and conjures up a character who is sharp, winning and true.” –The Plain Dealer
“Praise to Chase-Riboud for her total immersion in the spirit of Sarah Baartman.” –Booklist
“An extraordinary book by an extraordinary woman. . . . By virtue of beautiful pacing and writing, the novel is an exalting experience for the reader; and it rises to such heights at the end, that we experience a true epiphany. Like Beloved and Cry the Beloved Country, this book is essential.” –Carolyn Kizer, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Yin
“Chase-Riboud’s talent is the ability to write historical fiction that is meticulously detailed, descriptive and imagines the internal geography of those she writes about. . . . Persuasive, heartbreaking.” –Black Issues Book Review
“Expertly recreates Baartman’s spirit. . . . Chase-Riboud [is] a savvy documentarian and powerful storyteller.” –The San Diego Union Tribune
“A compelling story about racism and sexism and European imperialism, a story about the cruelty of curiosity that, in the end, should force many people to take a long hard look at themselves.” –Ebony
From the Hardcover edition.
Chase-Riboud plunges her reader into the midst of her story, joining Sarah Baartman in Paris in 1816 -- sick with consumption, pondering the nearly impossibly prospect of escaping her captivity and returning to her native country. As she journeys back in memory, we journey with her into her life as a Khoeknoe maiden, the disastrous encounters of her herding tribe with Dutch and English settlers, and her eventual decision to leave her tribal community for Cape Town to make a life among the colonists. Book clubs will find in Sarah a reflective woman who encounters among Europeans both exploitation and affection, cruelty and surprising kindness. The novel continually raises the question of where exactly the evil of colonial exploitation began, and where the limits of collusion and responsibility lay.
At the same time, Hottentot Venus is a novel about our conceptions of evolution, exploring the unique role that Sarah plays in the competing scientific ideas beginning to emerge at this time. Chase-Riboud follows the interest in Sarah shown by Georges Cuvier, one of the great minds in comparative anatomy, and in an inspired sequence toward the end of the novel, dramatizes a meeting of famous evolutionary minds as they observe Sarah's skeletal remains in a museum. This perspective on the history of science raises illuminating and troubling issues about how race became a part of the theorizing on evolution.
Finally, while reading groups will want to pursue Chase-Riboud's ideas about race, science, and colonialism in their discussions, they will also discover that Hottentot Venus contains a wealth of other themes to consider. Sarah herself is a fascinating, complex character, drawn in defiance of the historical perspective of her as mere victim. And the author's lushly detailed evocations of colonial Africa, Regency London, and Napoleon's Paris -- and the sometimes well known figures Sarah encounters in her travels -- offer myriad opportunities to be transported to another time and place. Book clubs will enjoy debating whether Hottentot Venus is more satisfying as an examination of a tragedy or as a rendering of a moment in time. And many readers will find themselves tempted to take both sides. Bill Tipper
Discussion Questions from the Publisher
Barbara Chase-Riboud's previous historical novels won her critical praise and established her as a writer who daringly transforms the hidden truths of the past into compelling fiction. In Hottentot Venus, Chase-Riboud recounts the tragic life of Sarah Baartman, re-creating in vivid, shocking detail the racism and sexism at the heart of European imperialism.
Born in the colony of Good Hope, South Africa, in 1789, Sarah Baartman was taken to London at the age of twenty by an English surgeon, who promised her fame and fortune. Dubbed the "Hottentot Venus," she was paraded naked in Piccadilly in a freak-show exhibition and subjected to the unabashed stares and crude comments of the British public, which resulted in a sensational trial for her custody by British abolitionists. Soon afterward, however, Baartman's keeper -- who may have been her husband -- sold her to a French circus owner. In 1814, her new owner took her to Paris as part of an exotic animal circus to be displayed to French high society. Baartman endured unconscionable exploitation and cruelty as medical experts and leading scientists touted her as an example of primitive evolution because of her genital "apron" and her prominent buttocks. Upon her death in 1816, she was publicly dissected and her brains, skeleton, and genitals were consigned to a French museum. In 2002, after eight years of legal negotiations between the French and South African governments, Baartman's remains were finally returned to South Africa for proper burial.
In Hottentot Venus, Barbara Chase-Riboud evokes this strange and moving story in the voices of Baartman and her contemporaries, combining years of research with the sensitivity and perceptions of a masterful storyteller to bring the story to life.
We hope that the following questions will enhance your reading group's discussion of this haunting story.
1. Discuss the role of missionaries during this period in African history. In what ways does Reverend Freehouseland's influence on Sarah actually contribute to her remaining a slave, even though he legally "freed" her from slavery?
2. What role does faith play in Sarah's life? How does religion shape her and the actions of those who exploit her?
3. During her time in London, Sarah forms a strong friendship with Princess Caroline, a dwarf who is also on display at the 225 Piccadilly freak show. How does Caroline's death foreshadow Sarah's? How else is Sarah's posthumous fate foreshadowed in the course of the story?
4. Was Sarah right to be suspicious of Robert Wedderburn and his efforts to free her? How would Sarah's story have been different if she had rebelled against Dunlop and Caesar and cooperated with Wedderburn?
5. In the first chapter Sarah describes the reactions of some of the people who come to see her on display in Paris. Why do women torment her more than men? Why is pity more painful for Sarah to endure than jeers and laughter?
6. Why do you think people find freak shows entertaining? What are some modern day freak shows?
7. How do the working class people of England react to the Hottentot Venus? How does their reaction differ from that of the French intelligentsia?
8. Discuss Sarah's relationship with Alice Unicorn. In what ways were their early lives similar? What are the paradoxes in their relationship?
9. Discuss the plight of women during this period in history. How does Sarah's marriage to Alexander Dunlop change her life? How does her position in society compare to that of Alice's?
10. How does Dunlop manipulate Sarah throughout the story? What power does he have over her?
11. Discuss how the various characters (Dunlop, Caesar, Réaux, Cuvier, etc.) justify to themselves and the public their horrific treatment of Sarah. Do they all see her as less than human?
12. Hottentot was the name given to the Khoekhoe people by the Dutch. What other racist terms have come and gone as part of the English language?
13. How does the changing of Sarah's name - from Ssehura to Saartjie to Hottentot Venus -- rob her of her identity and contribute to the mythology surrounding her?
14. Sarah's worst humiliation comes at the hands of Baron Georges Cuvier, a noted scientist who founded comparative anatomy. What does Sarah represent to the scientists and artists who attend Baron Cuvier's three-day exhibition and lecture?
15. Sarah did not receive a proper burial until 2002 when the French government agreed to return her to South Africa. Why do you think it took 150 years for this to happen?
Posted December 6, 2010
Barbara Chase-Riboud was already one of my favorite authors for her two novels Valide and Sally Hemmings, so I already had the expectation of the story being well researched and engaging, but it is Barbara's uncanny ability to spin an historical event into emotionally engrossing drama without a doubt exceeded my all my expectations! Barbara carves out for you a personal experience in her writing, I found myself lost as much in Saartie's happiness as I did in her despair.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 24, 2012
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Posted August 28, 2010
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Posted December 1, 2008
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