Set in the late 1850s, Southern Belle Emily Preston has been sent by her parents to live for a spell with her uncle Isaac Milford. She comes from a slave plantation in Carolina and she is in for some culture shock in Detroit, a land where slavery is not tolerated. Also, her uncle insists that she earn her keep and this means chores and attending school, things she did not have to do in Carolina.
This was a very interesting book. Most books I have read that are set in this time period always make slavery and slave owners out to be the big monsters of the story line. In this book, the author does a most excellent job of showing how slavery and white supremacy was handed down generation to generation and reinforced with culture and politics. Basically, it was never a simple black and white issue (no pun intended) and while I knew that from reading nonfiction history books, I had not seen an author willing to tackle that in fiction. So, big kudos to the author for showing the complexity of the times through Emily’s eyes.
While the plot itself was pretty straightforward (rich girl has to learn that other people are worthy of regard) the characters made it very engaging. Emily starts off pretty rude and conceited, but we also see right away that she is suffering from homesickness and is somewhat afraid of the unknown. After all, she has never been to Detroit or met her uncle. So right off, I am a little conflicted over her – I don’t want to like her because of many of her attitudes and yet I totally connect with the homesickness and dread of the unknown. Well played because Emily’s story arc has the most growth and by the end I was wanting to invite her into the kitchen for tea and biscuits.
Meanwhile, Isaac’s boarding house employs several free blacks and an Irish woman. They all still have to cater to whoever is willing to pay for a room, even the questionable Mr. Burrows (a slave catcher) and his crew. At first, Emily has great trouble accepting the idea of free blacks, and she initially finds the idea of blacks reading and going to school to be preposterous. But over several months, it becomes apparent that everything she has been taught about the supremacy of whites is incorrect. It’s a hard, bitter pill for her to swallow. Malachi, a black teen who is attending school, is instrumental in showing Emily a new way of thinking. Meanwhile, the old slave Ezekial who accompanies Emily on her trip, has revelations about his slave status that rock Emily’s world as well.
I appreciated that the author showed that Emily had prejudice against anyone, white or black, that she felt was beneath her family’s status. She comes to truly dislike an Irish maid at the boarding house, believing her to be beneath her uncle’s notice. It was very interesting to see that Emily came from a plantation-owning family that thought and acted very much like minor nobility. So many people of many colors and backgrounds were below their status. It made me wonder if the ‘minor nobility’ of the Deep South got a little inbred after a few generations.
The story progresses, showing us glimpses of the underground railroad that helped move slaves from the south to the northern states. Emily catches glimpses of this throughout the story but doesn’t truly grasp it until the end. And the end was nicely done too. We have some suspense that culminates in Emily’s choice concerning slavery. I was very satisfied with how this book ended and look forward to seeing what the author does next.
I received this book free of charge from the author in exchange for an honest review.
The Narration: Fred Wolinsky did a very nice job with this one. He had a very good stuck-up voice for young Emily. I also liked all his regional accents. There’s a speech by Frederick Douglas in the story and Wolinsky made it sound very epic, like a turning point in history (and for Emily it was an important moment).