A lawyer for the Legal Aid Society in New York, Bodden initially sold thousands of copies of this self-published novel online; she's been blurbed by Tom Wolfe and Henry Louis Gates Jr. In the antebellum South, tragedy results after Cornelius Allen gives his newly married daughter Clarissa the slave girl Sarah, Allen's daughter by his house slave and hence Clarissa's sister.
In this stunning debut, Marlen Suyapa Bodden effortlessly transports the reader to 1852 Alabama, where slavery and racism may rule the day, but everything isn't as black and white as it may seem. Sixteen-year-old Sarah Campbell is a housemaid to her half-sister Clarissa. Both daughters of plantation owner Mr. Allen, they secretly reject the roles they are expected to play. Sarah yearns for the day when she can escape slavery, while Clarissa is disinterested in her father's wishes for her to marry young and become mistress of her own plantation. But then Clarissa unexpectedly becomes pregnant before she's wed—changing the trajectory of both girls' lives. Bodden weaves a page-turning tangled web of misogyny, greed, scandal and violence in this powerful story about races colliding against the backdrop of America's darkest era. (Sept.)
“Stunning debutpage-turningpowerful story.” Publishers Weekly starred review
“A potent debut.” Good Housekeeping
“An inspiring read for historical-fiction fans.” Booklist
“Passionate...a good choice for readers who like a fast-paced historical story.” Library Journal
“Gripping innuendo, mystery, surprise, shrewd insight and murder ...” Ebony Magazine
“Fascinating, intriguinga great story!” Kathleen Grissom, New York Times bestselling author of The Kitchen House
“Powerful and absorbing.” Diane McKinney-Whetstone, author of Tumbling
“The strength of the novel is its slave narrative tone and its ability to demonstrate the pain of being owned by another human being. Many have heard of slavery; few know this story. It's too important to overlook.” Daniel Black, author of Twelve Gates to the City
A debut novel about slaves and masters, mistresses and wives, set in antebellum Alabama. Bodden's debut features two narrators: Sarah Campbell, a young mulatto slave, and Theodora, wife of Cornelius Allen, owner of Allen Estates, a large cotton plantation worked by hundreds of slaves. Sarah is Allen's daughter by his longtime slave mistress, Emmeline. Theodora, a gentlewoman, is at first in love with her new husband, but after the birth of their children (the youngest, Clarissa, is born shortly after Sarah), a combination of his alcoholism, increasingly violent behavior and infidelity quickly sours their marriage, and she takes refuge in the arts and her secret correspondence with a handsome poet. When Allen marries Clarissa off to Cromwell, a brutal plantation owner who can advance Allen's business interests (as a sub rosa investor in the now-illegal slave ships), the stage is set for melodrama. Clarissa has become pregnant by a rival suitor, and after a hurried wedding, Cromwell agrees, in return for financial concessions, to acknowledge the child as his. He changes his mind when he realizes, at Clarissa's "premature" birthing of a full-term son, that he cannot possibly be the father, and he sends Clarissa back home in disgrace. Meanwhile, Sarah, whom Cromwell seeks to coerce into concubinage as Allen did her mother, plots her escape. Thanks to Theodora's tutoring, she learned to read and write and is an excellent forger of slave passes. Upon Clarissa's return to Allen Estates, her enraged father takes away her child, and she dies of childbed fever shortly thereafter, whereupon Allen, knowing his good name is tarnished all over the South, drinks himself to death. As Theodora seeks her missing grandson, Cromwell threatens to sue and ruin the entire family. Sarah, in men's disguise, is making her way inexorably toward the port of Mobile, dodging slave catchers at every turn. Plodding prose, leaden dialogue and a gratuitous trick ending undermine what is otherwise a fraught and entertaining story enhanced with convincing period detail.