In 2010, readers of the sweeping family saga ROSES discovered Mary Toliver, who inherited the East Texas cotton plantation called Somerset, along with its reputed curse. In this prequel, we learn the history of the Toliver family's estate and of the curse, beginning in 1835 and leading up to 1900, the year Mary is born. The story begins with Silas Toliver, an extremely disgruntled 29-year-old widower. Upon the death of Benjamin Toliver, Silas's father, Silas learns that his older brother Morris has inherited the family's entire South Carolina plantation. According to Benjamin's will, Silas can earn a yearly salary and percentage of the plantation's profits if he will be his brother's land manager. This does not sit well, to understate the situation.
Silas is bitterly determined that he will not serve Morris. Instead, he hatches a plan with his friend, Jeremy Warwick. Together they will travel to land in east Texas, where the soil is said to be perfect for growing cotton. Silas plans to marry Lettie, the love of his life, who has essentially become the mother of Silas's young son, Joshua. As newlyweds, they will build a new life in Texas and Silas will establish his own cotton plantation, which he will call “Somerset” to honor an ancestor.
"This is such an enjoyable page-turner that, even at 600+ pages, readers are likely to find themselves wishing it was twice as hefty."
Elizabeth Toliver, Silas's mother, is devastated at losing her son, future daughter-in-law, and beloved grandson to distant lands. But that worry is nothing compared to what actually happens. Silas, who has made some poor investments, is desperate. Without the money, he must remain in South Carolina and work for his brother. That he will not contemplate, and so he goes to his neighbor, Carson Wyndham, for a loan. Meanwhile, Carson's daughter Jessica goes against her family values in her secret attempts to help slaves escape. When her work for the abolitionists is discovered, Carson lays down an ultimatum: she will either go to live in a convent, or she will marry Silas and leave South Carolina for Texas. Meanwhile, of course, Silas must make a similar choice between two evils. He can stay and work for Morris, or he can break his cherished fiancée's heart and marry Jessica, whose father will bankroll his plantation in Texas. After much soul-searching and agonizing, a joyless wedding ceremony is performed.
The new husband and wife have incredible odds against them. They don't love each other, for one thing. For another, Silas keeps slaves and Jessica informs him, "…I'd rather copulate with a mule than with a slave owner." And then there's the matter of the curse Elizabeth assures Silas will haunt his life from that moment forward --- a curse that, as the years roll by, Jessica and Silas have cause to remember. For now, though, as they face a daunting journey, their families simply fear for their safety, heightened by news of a war with Mexico and raids by Indians.
SOMERSET, as did ROSES, draws comparisons to GONE WITH THE WIND in its sweeping scope of multi-generational drama, set against the backdrop of historical events. Author Leila Meacham pens characters who are three-dimensional, and weaves their stories together skillfully and with an exquisite sense of pacing. This is such an enjoyable page-turner that, even at 600+ pages, readers are likely to find themselves wishing it was twice as hefty. SOMERSET and ROSES do not need to be read in any particular order, and either book serves well as a stand-alone. But my guess is that, having inhaled one of these books, most readers will instantly reach for the other one.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on February 7, 2014