The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey (Biography)

The Lost German Slave Girl

The Lost German Slave Girl 

John Bailey (Biography)

How could Sally Miller possibly imagine how much her life and future would change on a chance encounter in the spring of 1843.  That is what happened when Madame Carl Rouff left her home in Lafayette on that bright morning and travelled across New Orleans to visit her friend in Fauborg Marigny.  On her way, she noticed a woman—a slave—who bore a striking resemblance to her beloved friend, Dorothea Müller.  But no, it couldn’t be for her friend died on board a ship heading to America. No, it wasn’t Dorothea, but perhaps her lost daughter, Salomé?  Could it really be her after twenty-five years without a trace?  Was Salomé Müller, the lost daughter of Daniel and Dorothea, finally found?  And how could a woman of pure German ancestry be a slave?  One chance meeting was about to set off a series of events that would eventually lead Sally Miller all the way to the Supreme Court of Louisiana in one woman’s historic fight for freedom.

In his Author’s Note, John Bailey said that he stumbled upon Sally Miller’s remarkable story while doing research on the laws of American slavery.  The breadth of his research is thorough and extensive and he seems to have included everything he gleaned—the rights of slaves and their descendants, the founding of New Orleans, the plight of redemptioners—in his biography of Sally Miller (waste not, want not).  On the cover of The Lost German Slave Girl is a quote from The Washington Post declaring, “Reads like a legal thriller.”  Not quite.  I would say this book comes closer to an immersive (and at times exhaustive) history of slavery in Old New Orleans in the early 19th century.  The story does pick up at about 100 pages in (the book is 257 pages not counting the Endnotes) and has enough twists and turns to keep the reader’s attention; however, to get to this point in the story requires a healthy amount of tenacity and grit.  Lovers of history and the law will find the abundance of information interesting, but unless you are deeply passionate about either topic, you’ll find the sheer amount of facts and details presented to be a bit to slog through.

Bailey does give readers plenty to think when sharing Sally’s story of freedom, perseverance, and faith.  At this biography’s heart is a seemingly simple question: “What is it that binds one person to another?”  Love?  The law?  A sense of duty?  For Sally Miller, it was perhaps a little of each depending on her current stage of life.  Her story is remarkable, extraordinary, and indeed deserves to be shared if for no other reason than to remind us to never stop fighting for what your heart desires most.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com

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The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle (YA Historical Fiction)

The Lightning Dreamer

The Lightning Dreamer    

Margarita Engle (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

In a country where both men and words are closely guarded, it is the poet who proved to be the boldest and most daring abolitionist.  Gertrudis G mez de Avellaneda (nicknamed Tula) is thirteen and enjoying her last year of personal freedom in Cuba.  When she turns fourteen, she will be sold into matrimony to the highest bidder and her mother will use the proceeds from her marriage to buy more slaves.  Tula abhors slavery and often feels enslaved herself by a society that denies her an education, the right to vote, or the freedom to choose when and whom she will marry.  But Tula suddenly finds light in her dark world when she discovers the convent’s library.  Here, in a dusty corner, lies forbidden words of hope, rebellion, and the promise of freedom from a rebel-poet by the name of Jos  Mari  Heredia.

The Lightning Dreamer is a work of historical fiction and is based on the life of Gertrudis G mez de Avellaneda, a poet and playwright known as one of the world’s most influential female writers.  Written entirely in free verse, this story switches between numerous points of view to allow the reader to see firsthand the profound and unimagined impact that poetry has on its audience.  Engle’s work is stunningly vibrant and beautiful and conveys an expansive range of emotions with just a few carefully chosen words.  For example, we experience Tula’s heartbreak as she finally resigns herself to a life devoid of freedom and choices: “During those times,/ I find it easy to forget/ that I’m just a girl who is expected/ to live/ without thoughts.”  The nuns at the convent see Tula torn between two worlds and offer her the only comfort they can: “In a mother’s eyes,/ she can be only/ a monster of defiance/ or an angel of obedience,/ nothing/ in between.//So, we send her to the library,/ a safe place to heal/ and dream…”

During her lifetime, Avellaneda fought for racial and gender equality and although her ideas were considered shocking at the time, her vision was eventually accepted and Cuban slaves gained their freedom, schools became integrated, and young girls were able to enter into marriage voluntarily and for love.  Tula once said, “Books are door-shaped portals carrying me across oceans and centuries, helping me feel less alone.”  Engle reminds us of the power behind the written word and the hope, promise, and escape those words offer when nestled between the covers of a book.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

 

 

Pudd’nhead Wilson by Mark Twain

puddnheadwilson

Pudd’nhead Wilson

Mark Twain (Adult Fiction)

Thomas Paine once said, “Titles are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title.”  Whichever you choose to use—title or nickname—one thing is for certain and that is Mr. David Wilson has got himself a doozy.  David Wilson is a lawyer and a newcomer to Dawson’s Landing, a slaveholding town on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River.  Since irony is apparently lost on the good folks of Dawson’s Landing, Mr. Wilson’s first (and last) attempt at humor falls somewhat flat and results in the people thinking their newest citizen is a fool; therefore, it is only reasonable that they give him the equally fitting nickname of “Pudd’nhead”.  Fortunately, what Pudd’nhead lacks in comedy he more than makes up for with fads.  He has a penchant for palmistry and finger marks and is so enamored with the latter, he goes all around town collecting as many as he can from anyone he meets.  Little does he know how useful these marks will prove to be when a case of mistaken identity, a series of robberies, and a brutal murder will ultimately point to the fact that perhaps Pudd’nhead Wilson isn’t such a fool after all.

Pudd’nhead Wilson is part murder mystery, part social commentary, and part psychological study of nature versus nurture.  Combined, it’s a humorous and thought-provoking story of good intentions, broken promises, honor, love, and the ultimate price of sin.  Twain gives us a story of two babies—one free and one slave—who were switched at birth and grow up according to their station in life.  The slave is bound to his master while the other is bound by his uncle’s and society’s expectations.  Twain also delivers one of the most infuriating and insufferable characters ever to grace the written page (honestly, you just want to reach in and give him a good wallop).  Our young Tom, who has been given every privilege imaginable, is crass, spoiled, smug, selfish, ungrateful, untrustworthy, and cowardly.  If ever there was a character truly deserving of a comeuppance, it would be Tom.

Mark Twain was born in the slave state of Missouri and slavery was a central theme in his writings.  However, Pudd’nhead Wilson doesn’t focus so much on slavery as it does on two men and how their lives are ultimately determined by the cradle in which they sleep.  A simple switch and both lives are irrevocably changed forever.  One man is given everything only to squander it away while the other is given nothing, but makes the most of what little life has to offer.  Pudd’nhead Wilson is a commentary on grace versus greed, dignity versus disgrace, and affection versus apathy and Twain delivers it all masterfully.  But of course, Mark Twain would know a thing or two about fools.  After all, it was he who gave us the quote, “It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”  Oh, if only Pudd’nhead had known.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

 

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen House

Kathleen Grissom (Adult Fiction)

The Kitchen House tells the story of seven-year old Lavinia, an Irish orphan with no memory, who is taken by the owner of a tobacco plantation to live on his estate.  She is assigned to work in the kitchen house and placed in the care of Belle, the owner’s illegitimate daughter.  The story takes several dramatic turns as tragedy befalls the household and Livinia’s race begins to interfere with her intended social status.

This is one of those books that opens with a heart-wrenching scene from the end of the book (current time) and then brings you back to the beginning of the story (the past).  I love this writing technique as it immediately creates a sense of urgency and tension.  Alternating narratives between Livinia and Belle, this book combines the best and worst of the human condition while masterfully pulling the reader along for an unforgettable journey from the big house to the kitchen house.

Rating: 5/5