A choice for one of my book clubs, this 2008 novel opens with sixteen-year-old Florens telling us not to be afraid. As she goes on to relate her story, we come to know the other people on the plantation where she is a slave: Jacob Vaark, the self-made man who has inherited the land in Virginia; his wife Rebekka, who came from London in response to Jacob’s ad for a capable wife; the Native American slave Lina, whose tribe was wiped out by smallpox; the silent slave Sorrow, who lived on a ship for her first ten years, never setting foot on the ground; and two indentured servants, who have been hired from their owner by Jacob. The time is the 1680s and1690s, a period when slavery is just beginning to be enshrined in law and custom.
Throughout the book, using methods both subtle and apparent, Morrison examines how slavery—how dominion over another person—affects both the owned and the owners. Jacob hates the idea of having slaves and only took on the three women because he believed he was rescuing them from a worse situation. Yet he invests in sugar plantations in Barbados—worked of course by slaves unseen by him—and his reluctance to confront his own reality feeds the pride that works against his generous impulses. Rebekka, at first afraid of these others who she has been taught to believe are savages, not quite human, begins to accept and trust them as the women work the farm together. However, Rebekka, like Jacob, suffers losses that seem unbearable to her, losses that Lina attributes to the bad luck brought by Sorrow being in their midst.
In grappling with the condition of slavery, the story of the slaves brought from Africa is just a starting point for Morrison. The indentured servants are slaves in all but name, their period of servitude extended for real or false infractions. The burden a mother must bear in making choices for her child—something I have thought about often—reveals another aspect of the cost of having power over another person. In an even broader sense, all of the women in the story are under the dominion of a man, even Rebekka who was essentially sold into the marriage by her father. And the women do not have the option of someday finishing their indenture or becoming a freedman like the blacksmith who comes to help with the mansion that Jacob is building. A woman without the protection of a man faces dangers from all sides.
These are all motherless children, men and women alike. Orphaned, lost, given away, all of these characters struggle with their sense of abandonment as they try to become their own selves within the constraints that cage them. The structure of the book reinforces the story. Within Florens’s overall narrative arc are embedded a series of extended flashbacks in which we learn the background of each of the characters in turn. Within these encapsulated stories each character is alone, reinforcing the isolation each experiences.
The transitions in and out of these flashbacks are seamless and something I will be studying for a long time. Some members of my book club thought the language, with its biblical cadences, affected. One suggested that the self-consciously literary language distanced the characters and made it hard to care about them. I loved the language. I loved the attention paid to each description, each sentence, even in little ways, such as when Jacob at the end of a long ride gazes at the ocean and sees the moon dappling the waves; the association of the word “dapple” (at least in my mind) with the horse he’s riding pulls the scene together in an unexpected and subtle way. And the poetry of the way Florens describes the blacksmith made me gasp. Another member of my book club felt that reading this book was like falling into a dream. I felt that way too.