Published By: Lake Union Publishing
Publication Date: 24th May 2016
Price: £3.48 (Amazon.co.uk, ebook)
Supplied by netgalley.com in exchange for an honest review
When two Union soldiers stumble onto a plantation in northern Georgia on a warm May day in 1864, the last thing they expect is to see the Union flag flying high—or to be greeted by a group of freed slaves and their Jewish mistress. Little do they know that this place has an unusual history.
Twelve years prior, Adelaide Mannheim—daughter of Mordecai, the only Jewish planter in the county—was given her own maid, a young slave named Rachel. The two became friends, and soon they discovered a secret: Mordecai was Rachel’s father, too.
As the country moved toward war, Adelaide and Rachel struggled to navigate their newfound sisterhood—from love and resentment to betrayal and, ultimately, forgiveness.
Now, facing these Union soldiers as General Sherman advances nearer, their bond is put to the ultimate test. Will the plantation be spared? Or will everything they’ve lived for be lost?
Although this was an enjoyable read, and I was hooked from the start, I found some of the characterisation weak. The character of Adelaide seems to change rapidly, there’s little nuance to the character. Rachel is too perfect, even when she’s committing adultery with her sister’s husband. The characters of Mr and Mrs Mannheim are one dimensional; he’s a manipulative tyrant, she’s a bitter, social climber. They don’t develop or learn anything. The framing of two Union soldiers visiting the plantation towards the end of the American Civil War is a good vehicle for taking the story back in time but I think it would have held up if they weren’t brought in until the end anyway, as opposed to using them to frame the narrative.
That being said, I enjoyed the writing and the plot, and was, as I said, hooked from the start, even if the characters irked slightly. I want to know what happened to them all after the story ends. How would the continuing racist sentiments of most Southerners effect Rachel and Henry’s attempt at married life, how well does Adelaide’s school do? Do the former slaves thrive, or, as with so many in reality, will they become indebted share croppers? What happens to Sarah and her children?
Waldfogel describes life and the tensions in the American South in the 1860’s very well, if I compare it to factual books I’ve read on the subject. From white society with it’s contradictions (ladies in fine gowns who would never let on that they do the laundry when their friends aren’t visiting) to the political tensions within communities and the difficulties in deciding to go to war, the authoress does a fine job. Her descriptions of slave society are particularly interesting. Waldfogel explores the tensions within slave communities, the back and forth between those who wanted to run away, to try to get to Canada or free states where they might makes some life fore themselves in freedom, and those who chose to work with their white masters in the hope of improving their conditions where they were, or, the jealousies between fair-skinned African Americans and dark skinned people, the paler slaves being favoured with better positions and being more highly valued, who looked down on darker slaves for instance. She also covers interactions between free and enslaved, pointing out the less pleasant side of society (if a slave owning society can be said to even have a ‘pleasant’ aspect) – masters who raped their slaves. slave auctions where families were split up and slaves treat as livestock or commodities. It’s the reality of her writing that really brings this book to life and makes it grip the reader.
Waldfogel makes a good point that the German Jews who escaped Europe for the US seemed to forget their own history and fit seamlessly into Southern, slave-owning society and not question the hypocrisy of being slave owners themselves. The same could be said of anyone who emigrated from Europe to America who was from a lower class background, considering the lack of rights in European countries for the not-wealthy, but by focusing on one group who were particularly oppressed yet became oppressors themselves, we see the hypocrisy in high contrast. This is just another way in which the author has use the novel form to explore and detail the time and place and I think it works well. For some, a novel works better than a history book in passing on information and this is definitely one of those novels that succeeds in sharing information without it being heavy handed.
I recommend this book.