Exploring the permutations of Manon’s own obsession with Sarah against the backdrop of an impending slave rebellion, Property unfolds with the speed and menace of heat lightning, casting a startling light from the past upon the assumptions we still make about the powerful and powerful.
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IT NEVER ENDS. I watched him through the spyglass to see what the game would be. There were five of them. He gets them all gathered at the river's edge and they are nervous. If they haven't done this before, they've heard about it. First he reads to them from the Bible. I don't have to hear it to know what passage it is. Then they have to strip, which takes no time as they are wearing only linen pantaloons. One by one they must grasp the rope, swing over the water, and drop in. It's brutally hot; the cool water is a relief, so they make the best of it. He encourages them to shout and slap at one another once they are in the water. Then they have to come out and do it again, only this time they hang on the rope two at a time, which means one has to hold on to the other. They had gotten this far when I looked.
Two boys were pulling the rope, one holding on while the other clutched his shoulders. They were laughing because they were slippery. The sun made their bodies glisten and steam like a horse's flanks after a long run. The boy on the ground ran down the bank and off they went, out over the water, releasing the rope at the highest point of its arc and crashing into the smooth surface below like wounded black geese. He hardly watched them. He was choosing the next two, directing one to catch the rope on its return, running his hands over the shoulders of the other, which made the boy cower and study the ground. I couldn't watch anymore.
They have to keep doing this, their lithe young bodies displayed to him in various positions. When he gets them up to three or four at a time, he watches closely. The boys rub against each other; they can't help it. Their limbs become entwined, they struggle to hang on, and it isn't long before one comes out of the water with his member raised. That's what the game is for. This boy tries to stay in the water, he hangs his head as he comes out, thinking every thought he can to make the tumescence subside. This is what proves they are brutes, he says, and have not the power of reason. A white man, knowing he would be beaten for it, would not be able to raise his member.
He has his stick there by the tree; it is never far from him. The boys fall silent as he takes it up. Sometimes the offending boy cries out or tries to run away, but he's no match for this grown man with his stick. The servant's tumescence subsides as quickly as the master's rises, and the latter will last until he gets to the quarter. If he can find the boy's mother, and she's pretty, she will pay dearly for rearing an unnatural child.
This is only one of his games. When he comes back to the house he will be in a fine humor for the rest of the day.
Often, as I look through the glass, I hear in my head an incredulous refrain: This is my husband, this is my husband.
IN THE MORNING he was in a fury because Mr. Sutter has gotten into such a standoff with one of the negroes that he has had him whipped and it will be a week before he can work again. They are cutting wood in shifts and there are no hands to spare, or so my husband has persuaded himself. The negro, Leo, is the strongest worker we have. He maintains Leo was never a problem until Sutter decided he was insolent. Sutter's real grievance, he says, is that Leo has befriended a woman Sutter wants for himself. I had to listen to all this at breakfast. He cursed and declared he would kill Sutter, then sent back the food, saying it was cold. Sarah went out with the plate. He leaned back in his chair and put his hand over his eyes. "She's poisoning me," he said.
When Sarah came back, he pretended to soften. "Is Walter in the house?" he asked. "Send him to me."
So then we had the little bastard running up and down the dining room, putting his grubby fingers in the serving plates, eating bits of meat from his father's hand like a dog. Sarah leaned against the sideboard and watched, but she didn't appear to enjoy the sight much more than I did. The child is a mad creature, like a beautiful and vicious little wildcat. It wouldn't surprise me to see him clawing the portieres. He has his father's curly red hair and green eyes, his mother's golden skin, her full pouting lips. He speaks a strange gibberish even Sarah doesn't understand. His father dotes on him for a few minutes now and then, but he soon tires of this and sends him away to the kitchen, where he lives under the table, torturing a puppy Delphine was fool enough to give him. Once the boy was gone, he turned his attention to Sarah. "Go down and see to Leo," he said. "And give me a report in my office when you have done."
She nodded, eyes cast down. Then he pushed back his chair and went out without speaking to me.
"He thinks you are poisoning him," I said when he was gone, watching her face. Something flickered at the corner of her mouth; was it amusement? "I'll have more coffee," I said.
ON THE PRETENSE that she is of some use to me, I had Sarah in my room all morning with the baby she calls Nell, a dark, ugly thing, but quiet enough. He hates the sight of this one. It's too dark to be his, or so he thinks, though stranger things have happened, and everyone knows a drop of negro blood does sometimes overflow like an inkpot in the child of parents who are passing for white, to the horror of the couple and their other children as well. Somehow Sarah has prevailed upon my husband, with tears and cajoling, I've no doubt, to let her keep this baby in the house until it is weaned. At first she had it in the kitchen, but she was up and down the stairs a hundred times a day, which made him so irritable he demanded that I do something about it. I told Sarah to bring a crate from the quarter and put it in the corner of my room, which earned me one of her rare straightforward looks that I take to mean she's pleased.
It was so hot, I had her fan me. So there we sat, I with my eternal sewing, Sarah plying the fan, and the baby sleeping in her box. She has rigged the box out absurdly with a ticking mattress stuffed with moss and covered by a rag quilt. She even tacked a loop of willow across the middle to hold up a piece of mosquito net. "Is she a princess?" I said when I saw this ridiculous contraption. "If she not itchy, she won' cry," Sarah replied. This, I had to admit, was a reasonable assertion. It is one of the annoying things about her; on those occasions when she bothers to speak, she makes sense.
After a while the baby whimpered. Sarah took it up to suckle, holding it in one arm and working the fan with the other. She had pulled her chair up behind mine so I couldn't watch this process, but I could hear the nuzzling, snuffling sound, mewing a little now and then like a kitten. I don't understand why she is so determined to suckle this one, as it will be passed down to the quarter as soon as it's weaned and sold away when it is old enough to work. He won't get much for her. Ugly, dark little girls aren't easy to sell. It would be a good joke on him if he had to give her away.
Eventually I grew bored and tried talking to her, a largely hopeless enterprise. "You went down to tend to Leo?" I said.
"I did," she replied.
"Is he bad?"
"Who did the whipping?"
"I don' know."
So much for conversation.
AT DINNER HE was gloomy. The new rollers for the sugar press have come. He spent the morning trying to get them installed and cut his hand badly in the process. It is all Sutter's fault because he couldn't use Leo, who has more experience with the press than anyone on the place. He had to call in two boys from the field who didn't know their right hands from their left and couldn't hold up their own pants. If Sutter wanted to whip boys near to death, he said, why couldn't he choose worthless ones like these two and not the only useful negro on the place.
When Sarah brought the potatoes in, he took a spoon from the bowl straight to his mouth and then spat it into his plate. "Are we not possessed of a warming dish in this house!" he cried out. Sarah picked up the bowl, pulled the plate away, and headed for the door. He wiped his mouth vigorously with his napkin, swallowed half a glass of wine. "I swear she puts them in the icehouse."
I looked at him for a few moments blankly, without comment, as if he was speaking a foreign language. This unnerves him. It's a trick I learned from Sarah. "Since there are no servants presently available, Mistress Manon," he said, "I'll have to prevail on you to serve me some meat."
I got up, went to the sideboard, and served out a few slices of roast. When I set the plate in front of him, he attacked it like a starving man. Sarah came back in carrying a bowl wrapped in a cloth which sent up a puff of steam when she opened it. He grunted approval as she spooned a portion onto his plate.
I went to my place but couldn't bring myself to sit down. "I have a headache," I said. "I'll have dinner later in my room." He nodded, then, as I was leaving, he said, "I would like to speak to you in my office before supper."
"Would four o'clock be convenient?" I said.
"Yes," he replied through a mouthful of food.
HE PRIDES HIMSELF on being different from his neighbors, but his office looks exactly like every planter's office in the state: the good carpet, the leather-topped desk, the engravings of racehorses, the Bible with the ribbon marker that never moves, employed as a paperweight, the cabinet stocked with strong drink. I kept him waiting a quarter of an hour to irritate him. When I went in he was sitting at the desk poring over his account books. He does this by the hour, totaling up long lists of supplies and others of debt. Without looking at me, he observed, "Someone is stealing corn."
"Are you sure there's no mistake in your figures?" I asked.
He looked up. "Will you sit down?" he said, gesturing to a chair. I was so surprised by his civil tone that I did as he asked, and busied myself arranging my skirts until he should be moved to reveal the motive of his summons.
"Three of Joel Borden's negroes ran away on Sunday," he began. "Last night one of them broke into Duplantier's smokehouse. The houseboy saw him and raised the alarm, but they didn't catch him. Duplantier says he was carrying a pistol, though where he got it no one knows. Borden isn't missing any firearms."
"I see," I said.
"So they're coming this way."
"Yes," I agreed.
"They'll probably try to pass through the bottomland and get to the boat landing. I'm joining the patrol at dark. I've got two sentries I can trust here; they'll be moving around all night. I'll lock the house and put the dogs in the kitchen."
"Delphine is afraid of the dogs."
"Well, she'll just have to be afraid," he said impatiently. "She'll be a heap more scared if one of these bucks comes through the window with a pistol."
"That's true," I said.
"I want you and Sarah to stay in your room, lock the door, and don't come out for anything until I come back."
I kept my eyes down. "Wouldn't it be better for Sarah to stay in the kitchen with Delphine?"
"Don't worry about Delphine. She'll have Walter and Rose with her."
Walter is a mad child and Rose a flighty girl. Neither would be of much use in a crisis. "And Sarah will be safer with me," I observed.
"You'll be safer together," he corrected me, scowling at my impertinence, then neatly changing the subject. "It's all Borden's fault. He doesn't half-feed his negroes and his overseer is the meanest man on earth. The ham they got from Duplantier was probably the first decent food they'd had in a year."
"Is Joel here or in town?"
"He came up quick enough when he heard about it. Now he's grumbling that he'll be out two thousand dollars if we kill them. Not one man on the patrol is going to risk his life to save one of these damned runaways. If we can find them, they'll be better off dead than dragged back to Borden's overseer, and I've no doubt they know it."
"Then they must be desperate."
He gave me a long look, trying to detect any mockery in this remark. Evidently he found none and his inspection shifted from my mood to my person, where he found cause for a suspicion of extravagance. "Is that a new dress?" he asked.
"No," I replied. "I retrimmed it with some lace Aunt Lelia sent."
His eyes swept over my figure in that rapacious way I find so unsettling. "You've changed the neck."
He couldn't be dismissed as an unobservant man. "Yes," I said. "The styles have changed."
"I wonder how you know when you have so little society."
"I copied it from a paper my aunt sent with the lace."
"It's very becoming," he said.
There was a time when I was moved by compliments, but that time is long behind us, as we both know. Still he manages to work up some feeling about what he imagines is my ingratitude. "I'm sorry to vex you by remarking on your appearance, Manon," he said. "You are free to leave, if you've no business of your own to discuss with me."
I stood up. What business might that be? I wondered. Perhaps he'd care to have a look at my accounts: on one side my grievances, on the other my resolutions, all in perfect balance. I allowed my eyes to rest upon his face. He brought his hand to his mustache, smoothing down one side of it, a nervous habit of his. It's always the right side, never the left. Looking at him makes my spine stiffen; I could feel the straightness of it, the elongation of my neck as I turned away. There was the rustling sound of my skirt sweeping against the carpet as I left the room, terminating thereby another lively interview with my husband.
Reading Group Guide
Winner of the Orange Prize
“This fresh, unsentimental look at what slave owning does to (and for) one’s interior life must be a first. And the writing—so prised and clean-limbed—is a marvel.” —Toni Morrison
The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Valerie Martin’s Property, groundbreaking fiction selected by the international Orange Prize committee as the best novel of the year by a woman writing in English.
1. How does Property differ from such long-time favorite novels of the South as Gone With the Wind?
2. In the early pages of the novel, Manon treasures the memory of her father and of his fairness to their slaves. Yet over the course of the novel, she changes her mind, rejecting him so fiercely that she turns his picture face down and calls him a hypocrite [p. 182]. What psychological progression leads to Manon’s change of heart?
3. Manon remembers her father telling her that “Religion was for the Negroes . . . it was their solace and consolation, as they were ours” [p. 22]. Discuss Manon’s relationship to the religious convictions that were the sources of pro- and anti- slavery movements in both North and South.
4. In what sense is Sarah an alter ego or “double” for Manon?
5. When Manon is in her husband’s control, one might say she is something of a slave herself. Yet once she is free, her sense of injustice and victimization persist. What explains that, and how does it relate to other historical situations involving the oppression of one group by another?
6. Manon speaks of a lie, “the lie at the center of everything, the great lie we all supported, tended and worshipped as if our lives depended upon it” [p. 179]. Manon claims that it is this lie that has turned her heart to stone, and not, as her aunt maintains, the burden of her childlessness. What is the lie?
7. Babies and the act of nursing figure in several scenes in the novel. Recalling how white infants were nursed by slaves, Manon muses, “Perhaps that was how the poison entered us all” [p. 180]. What is the poison?
8. One of the most dramatic sections in the novel is the story of Sarah’s escape. Why does the author relate these events not from Sarah’s point of view but as a story told to Manon third-hand?
9. At the end of the novel, Mr. Roget, a free black man and New Orleans artisan, steps forward and offers to purchase Sarah and Walter from Manon. She refuses, speaking of a bit of white plaster that falls from his suit to the carpet as enraging her and sealing his fate. [p. 170]. Why does she refuse his offer, and what is the significance of the plaster?
10. How does Manon view Walter at the end of Property? What do you imagine will become of him?
11. What is the significance of the spyglass at the opening of the novel, and of the first-person narrative voice the author uses?