Sarah Campbell is the hardworking, illegitimate daughter of house-slave Emmeline and plantation owner Cornelius Allen. She works as the personal maid to the master’s young daughter, Clarissa, who also happens to be her half-sister, a fact that is hidden from Clarissa, her mother and Cornelius’s wife, Theodora. As Sarah comes of age in the Allen household in the Alabama of the 1800s, she daydreams about her future, always harboring hope that her life will be better than the one her poor mother has to bear. Even though it is strictly forbidden for slaves to learn to read, Clarissa, who is like a playmate as well as a mistress to Sarah, secretly begins giving her private lessons. As she advances in her education, Theodora takes over her schooling, and out of kindness, she includes Sarah (in secret) in her daughter’s lessons.
"Fans of THE HELP, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL will relish Bodden’s accomplished debut novel. Its subject matter and touching characters make it a perfect choice for book clubs."
As the girls approach a marriageable age, eligible prospects for marriage are submitted for Clarissa. Wealthy, landowning bachelors from all over the state come to squire the young lady in the hopes of winning her hand. Sarah has no such prospects. There will be no coming-out ball for her, nor talk of which landed gentleman would make the most profitable match. She does meet a rather nice young man named Isaac, also a slave and in similar circumstances, and they quietly marry. Sarah doesn’t foster any lofty or romantic delusions about marriage. She knows she doesn’t live in the same world as her half-sister, and that is fine with her. To Sarah, it would just tie her down. Ever since she could remember, she had been plotting her escape. A big brood and extended family would make this impossible. After an unexpected pregnancy and miscarriage, Isaac is grief-stricken, but Sarah is guiltily relieved.
After a pampered existence and the attention of quite a few men, Clarissa has grown into a vain and spoiled young lady. Drunk with the attention, she begins courting two different men at the same time, unbeknownst to her family --- and both men. But when she does marry, Clarissa surprisingly chooses Mr. Cromwell from Talladega, the choice of her father, over a young man in Montgomery with whom she was in love. As a wedding gift from her parents, Mr. Allen “gives” Sarah to Clarissa, to be her half-sister’s personal maid in her new marital home --- a post the Allens think would be an honor for Sarah, but that merely thwarts her plans for escape even further.
Told through the alternating voices of Sarah, the young slave girl, and Theodora, the long-suffering wife of the cruel slave master, Cornelius Allen, author Marlen Suyapa Bodden takes this story, based on an actual court case from 1800s Alabama, and imparts a fully fleshed-out portrait of a brutal time in our history --- a sort of "Upstairs Downstairs" of pre-Civil War America. Although Theodora had the privileges and rights, her life was not one to be envied. Each woman had to face her own hardships each day and figure out a way to make it through to the next day. Through their alternating narratives, we see from their point of view the violence, danger, brutality, and sometimes beauty they encountered on a daily basis.
Fans of THE HELP, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES and OLDEST LIVING CONFEDERATE WIDOW TELLS ALL will relish Bodden’s accomplished debut novel. Its subject matter and touching characters make it a perfect choice for book clubs.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on September 27, 2013