PLEASE RATE THE BOOK NOT THE POSTING
Thomas Kinsman, a Jamaican printer/publisher persuades his Mother, July, to write about her time as slave on a sugar plantation in the early years of the 19th century. So, we hear from July as she is now, a rather cantankerous older lady bemoaning the insistence of her son to write her memoirs and her reminiscences of a hard life as a slave.
The book starts by telling how July is born in a hut on the plantation. Her mother, Kitty, is a strong large slave who can handle herself. Her father is a white Scottish overseer on the plantation. Within a very short space of time July is taken by the plantation owner’s sister Caroline and becomes her personal slave. Caroline decides to call July Marguerite and so, not only is she taken away from her mother, she also loses her name. Kitty remains on the plantation and for a period of time watches July from the garden of the house getting glimpses of her in the window.
July’s life takes another dramatic turn during the Baptist war of 1831 when the first rebellion of the slaves took place. The plantation owner, John, goes to fight and, as a consequence of what he sees and experiences, returns to his home and kills himself. His return interrupts a romantic liaison between July, now a young woman, and a freed slave by the name of Nimrod. They hide under the bed when John returns not knowing he is about to shoot himself. The result being that when John is found dead, Nimrod and July are discovered and Nimrod is accused of murdering John. They escape but are captured in the local slave camp. Nimrod is killed and July is about to be but is rescued by her Mother, who, having heard of July’s return, has come to try to find her. On seeing July in danger, she beats July’s attacker. July is saved and returns to her duties as slave to Caroline, who now runs the plantation, and gives birth to Nimrod’s son, but Kitty is eventually put to death.
July’s son (Thomas) is given up to a local Methodist minister and his wife and brought up as one of their sons. They move to England and take Thomas with them. July doesn’t see her son again until she is much older when he returns to Jamaica and finds her.
The next major event for July is the end of slavery and, roughly at the same time the arrival of Robert Goodwin, a new overseer for the plantation. July has her freedom but remains in the service of Caroline and quickly develops a relationship with Robert. Robert comes to the plantation with a refreshing attitude towards the blacks. He is full of good intentions and believes they should be treated well. Soon, Robert realises he is in love with Caroline and struggles with this because,although a liberal, his father would not approve of him having a black wife. He decides to resolve this conundrum by marrying Caroline so that he can live in the same house as July and July becomes his mistress. Inevitably, July becomes pregnant and eventually gives birth to a girl. Caroline has become aware of the relationship between Robert and July but decides to live with it, almost as if she is willing to put up with it because she doesn’t want to lose either of them .
Robert discovers that running a plantation is a lot harder in practise than in theory and, with slavery abolished, he can no longer demand the slaves work the long hours they did previously. Very soon he is destroyed by this and the former slaves leave the plantation withdrawing their labour. This causes Robert to have a breakdown resulting in Caroline taking the decision to take Robert back to England. By this time, Caroline has met Robert and July’s daughter and deceives July on the day of their departure taking the baby with them. They leave for England and July never sees her child again.
This is effectively where July’s story ends and Thomas tells his tale, how he was brought up, how he became a printer, how he became a wealthy man and eventually found his mother and rescued her from abject poverty. The two stories come together at the end of the book and explain why July is now telling her tale.
I really enjoyed this book, more so than “Small Island”. July was a plucky character who remained so dignified and calm no matter what was thrown at her. The fact that she lost both her children is testament to her hardiness. How she was treated by Robert and Caroline would have broken most people but she carried on. It was almost as if she didn’t know any different and hence thought this was how life was. Despite this, she has fun sliding on her pinafore down the wooden floors of the house, jumping into bed with Nimrod, sneaking bottles of alcohol out of the window etc.
I found Robert a rather contradictory character. I thought he was genuinely a good man but he turned into a monster in the way he treated his staff. I can’t quite determine whether his initial behaviour was a cover or front and that he didn’t believe a lot of what he said about treating blacks well. On the other hand, he was so kind to July initially that he didn’t appear to have any prejudice. Perhaps the harsh realities of trying to run a profitable plantation changed him. I suspect that there were few profitable plantations once slavery was abolished.
Caroline appeared to be oblivious to a lot of the issues surrounding slavery and those whose lives it affected. It was almost as if she felt it was irrelevant and didn’t apply to her or was just the natural order of things and hence nothing would ever change. I think she just used people for what she needed them for, regardless of their colour. It occurred to me as I sat on the beach reading this with a waiter bringing me drinks that we are all guilty of this. Does my waiter have to work unreasonable hours, does he get paid a living wage, could he be sacked for no apparent reason? I don’t know and haven’t taken the time to find out.
In some ways I felt the narration and interruptions from July as she was as an older woman telling her tale were unnecessary. The story could have been told without this but I think the purpose of this came to light at the end of the book when Thomas tells his tale and we learn that July never found her daughter. It would have been difficult to get this angle of the story without the older July narrating .
One aspect of the book that I did find interesting and fascinating was the attitude amongst the black slaves about their colour. It appeared that they also adopted a racist attitude with lighter skinned Negroes having more status and better prospects than those with darker skin. I found it incredulous that a group of people so downtrodden because of their treatment by people who felt they were better than them because of the colour of their skin could adopt the same attitudes themselves!
Levy has done an excellent job of telling an interesting, amusing, sad and historically accurate tale that kept me gripped from beginning to end. It makes you laugh out loud and also breaks your heart.
If you like this book you may like:
Small Island by Andrea Levy
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Other Book Info:
Amazon review score: 4 out of 5