The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden is set in pre-Civil War Alabama. It’s the story of plantation life told in alternating narratives by Sarah Campbell, and Theodora Allen. Theodora Allen is the well-educated wife of the plantation owner, Cornelius Allen. Sarah Campbell is the daughter of Cornelius Allen and his house slave, Emmeline. Theodora discovered too late that the man she married had a single-minded focus to keep the plantation prospering. He brutally enforced his ideas about how life on the plantation was to be lived. He was also an alcoholic who became crueler and more violent the more he drank. Theodora was not spared from his brutality especially when she complained about his long-standing intimate relationship with Emmeline.
Sarah Campbell was a product of that forced intimacy. She was born about the same time that Theodora gave birth to Clarissa, her youngest child and only daughter. The girls were raised together, and secretly educated together by Theodora until they were teenagers. Clarissa was spoiled, self-centered and not interested in learning. Sarah was hungry to learn, and Theodora let her sit in on her lessons with Clarissa even though it was against the law to teach slaves to read and write.
Sarah was given to Clarissa as a wedding gift when she married Julius Cromwell. Sarah and her husband Isaac moved with Clarissa to the Crowell plantation. Sarah always harbored a dream of freedom. She was a target of Julius Cromwell’s unwanted attention as he waited for Clarissa to give birth to their first child. Clarissa was harboring a secret that would affect everyone in explosive ways after it was revealed.
Marlen Suyapa Bodden’s first novel is a good one. The overarching theme of the novel has been told many times, but this is a successful telling about how the practice of slavery affected all of those involved in it. Clearly, the consequences for the slaves were all-encompassing and horrific. Sarah, Emmeline and Sarah’s half-sister, Belle all try to live a life of dignity under the terror of slavery. The precarious nature of all the slaves’ lives is continually reinforced by the violent and capricious whims of Mr. Allen. For instance, he sells Belle away from the family to try to keep Emmeline in line and attentive to his sexual needs. Theodora’s plight is also clearly illustrated in this story. She is well-educated, white and wealthy but is equally terrorized by Mr. Allen.
This book moved at a good pace. Sometimes the unrelenting reality of everyone’s situation was hard to read about. There isn’t any sugar-coating in the story. But there are interesting twists and turns that I won’t reveal. I was surprised by the ending. If you are one of those readers who insists on reading the last few pages of a book first, I’d strongly encourage you to avoid that with this book. The payoff is well worth the patience.
Krista lives just outside the urban sprawl of Portland, Oregon. Lamentably, her work as a technical writer and business analyst often interferes with her reading which is a true passion.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by St. Martin’s Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.