This historical fiction novel explores the complexities and atrocities of antebellum New Orleans on a struggling sugar plantation, Le Petite Cottage. It’s disturbing and grand, horrifying, and eye-opening. It’s one thing to suggest that slavery is atrocious and it’s another to show how slavery stripped human beings of their dignity and self. The violence and sexual content are difficult to read but necessary at the same time. The realities of chattel slavery cannot be censored or glossed over. Rita Williams-Garcia weaves a cast of characters together revealing the many layers that exist between White plantation owners and the people they enslave. Matriarch Madame Sylvie Bernardin de Maret Dacier Guilbert dreams of her glory days in the French royal court. She was taken from France as a child and married off to a plantation owner. She’s arrogant, shrewd, entitled, and thrives on class and racial distinction. Her adult son, Lucien, is equally foul, and they enjoy battling each other for superiority. He tries desperately and pathetically to launch Le Petite Cottage out of debt when he’s not too busy preying on slave women. While Williams-Garcia exposes the Guilbert family’s truly depraved qualities, she also juxtaposes those against painful and tragic events that make them empathetically human. She paints them in dappled shades of darks and lights that are uniquely emotional for readers. Madame Sylvie is both fragile and jagged as her slave servant, Thisbe, wipes her, dresses her, and learns that Madame named her after Marie Antoinette’s dog. Williams-Garcia is a master at ushering the reader to both hate and feel pity for Madame Sylvie as the wretched creature’s big sweeping desire is to sit for a portrait so she can hang onto the last scrap of her legacy. Her grandson and heir to Le Petite Cottage, Byron, lives a double life as a West Point cadet, madly in love with his best friend, Pierce. Lucien does his best to force Pierce to “be a man.” Thisbe is a major character, and although she’s Madame’s personal house slave, isolated from her family day and night, she’s ostracized for having it easier when that’s anything but accurate. Williams-Garcia shows the complex layers of emotion that exist between slaves as they are pitted against one another for favor and survival; the unspoken rules on “how to act” when Whites are around serve as a uniting element. Thisbe “knows her place,” but she’s sharper than Madame Sylvie. She holds her ground, and when Madame Sylvie is at her weakest, Thisbe makes a bold move. A Sitting in St. James is epic, and the tangled emotional impact is jarring. A great book makes you feel, but an epic book makes you question your feelings. This one will sit with me for a long time.
Travel All the Pages is inspired by my two loves - travel and reading, a combo I can't resist. Enjoy these little pairings.