- To add it to my review.
- You already told us you didn’t like the book.
- Yeah. But I didn’t tell you why.
- So. Why?
- It’s a long story.
- Give me the short version.
- It portrays slavery as benign.
- Like Gone With The Wind?
- Yeah. Except with better facts. And placed in Texas.
- All right. I need the longer version.
- Check below the cut.
I didn’t like the book. I've said that before.
Let me also say that the ending was just fine. I know some people have complained that it was too dark. But that struck me as completely appropriate, given the subject matter—the lies Texan ranchers told their slaves to keep them in bondage after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
What bothered me was everything else.
The story takes place in Texas during the Civil War, after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. It’s told from the point of view of Luli Holcomb, the youngest daughter of a wealthy plantation owner whose riches derive from slave labor. From Luli’s perspective, slavery is a benign institution. Sis Goose, a light-skinned slave, is treated as a member of the family and is educated alongside Luli, as her sister. The plantation slaves are all devoted to their masters, and have all of their needs met by these masters who are generous and never cruel to them. There is an evil aunt who wants to hurt the sister/slave, but the son of General Robert E. Lee and the main character protect her from both sale and humiliation.
Now, I want to be clear. Rinaldi’s writing is good. The historical information is interesting. The interactions between the white members of the family are carefully wrought. There is nuance (except for the older white sister who is the stereotype of a southern belle), thoughtfulness, pride, anger, love, hate, all the human emotions. But when it comes to the lives and emotions of the slaves, there is emptiness.
The slave characters exist, of course. But except for Sis Goose, who is viewed by the family as white, they are mainly stereotypes without depth. Luli talks about an aged manservant slave of the dead grandfather, mainly to point out how he is cared for by the white members of the family. The black overseer is devoted and competent, but featureless. The cook is both very good, stern, but generous, in a crotchety way. The one slave with a little character is a hoodoo woman—the quintessential magical Negro who is respected and almost revered by the owner.
Although Sis Goose is described at length by Luli, she is a cypher. We are never truly privy to her emotions. We are told that she is not as bold as Luli, that she sometimes speaks of her hopes and dreams, and we see her growing attraction to Luli’s brother Gabe. But Luli doesn’t really understand her slave sister, and so we don’t either.
The pivot of the story is a lie. Luli, as a naive, 13-year-old slave owner, buys into the horrible Texas lie perpetrated by Texas ranchers that their slaves are still in bondage even though they have been emancipated. From her point of view, if they told the slaves that they were free, who would bring in the harvest? Where would the whites get their food? And wouldn’t there be an uprising? And given her benign, even glowing view of the Holcomb plantation, how could Luli understand the horror that two and a half more years of bondage would mean to over seventy people?
Despite my strong distaste for this point of view, I was willing to give Rinaldi leeway. After all, what Luli saw was, essentially, what slave owners had to see to be able to live with themselves: a benign institution and the need to protect themselves from a population that outnumbered them. And given the title of the book, I knew that the slaves would eventually be freed and a new perspective would ensue. I was disappointed.
When Luli witnesses her father freeing the slaves, and there is no bloodshed, there’s no introspection. When Luli travels with her brother and hears stories how an ex-slave’s brother was sold off and how a pregnant slave was murdered by her master, she does not reflect. She takes it as a matter of grace that her grandfather stole their land from the Kickapoo Indians. The section which describes how her grandfather and grandmother kept the Kickapoos away and somehow gained their and everyone else’s respect is told entirely without irony. This irony is compounded by the fact that Luli’s brother Gabe is off fighting those very same Kickapoos who, it appears, are actually rather pissed off about being thrown off their land. Oh yes, Luli tells us how very sorry he is about the atrocities he commits, and how he even adopts the son of a woman he killed. But it’s understood that the boy is to be whitified. And all is forgiven because Gabe was just doing his duty.
In the first half of the book, the scene that probably galled me the most, occured during Luli and Sis Goose’s annual (and last) visit with Aunt Sophie. Aunt Sophie decides that Sis Goose needs to learn how to be a slave and orders her to empty out a chamber pot. This is a slave’s job, and Aunt Sophie interrupts a house slave who was about to perform it so that Sis Goose can do it. Appalled, Luli intervenes and eventually threatens to run back home with Sis Goose if Aunt Sophie insists. When Aunt Sophie tells her that Luli’s parents will be angry, Luli replies, “Pa said we could. He said if you treat Sis Goose like a no-account, we should get our horses and leave.” Note that the other slave is still in the room. That slave is a “no-account.” All slaves are no-accounts. They simply don’t matter. Sis Goose is worth something because, as far as Luli is concerned, she isn’t a slave.
But of course, Sis Goose is a slave. After she’s freed and finds out how Luli’s family has lied to her about her bondage during two and half years, Luli is surprised by Sis Goose’s anger.
Now this response is completely in character since Luli is a naive, pampered in her way, white master. However what follows should be eye-opening to Luli. Sis Goose, pregnant with Gabe’s child, disappears with the Yankee Colonel who took over their plantation; Luli and Gabe trek after them; they meet all kinds of people and hear horrible slave stories; when Sis Goose is found, she refuses to return because she tells Luli how being in bondage for two and a half years meant she could not do things she would have otherwise wanted to do; and Sis Goose dies at Luli’s hands. Luli asks, what would have happened if they had told Sis Goose earlier? Would she still be alive? Would she have held Gabe off and waited for marriage? (I leave out whether such a marriage would have been truly possible in the society of the time.) These are all fair questions. But at no point does Luli see that it wasn’t just the lies to Sis Goose that were horrible—which they were—it was the fact of bondage itself which was horrific.
Sis Goose grew up knowing that she was a slave even though she was treated as a member of the family. The yearly interactions with Aunt Sophie underlined the bondage. The scenes with Aunt Sophie are well done: you sense in her the power of a slave owner over every aspect of the life of a slave. Yet Rinaldi blunts this point by having Rooney Lee, Gabe, Luli’s Pa, and Luli herself protect Sis Goose. As if every good slave had a coterie of good whites ready to defend them against evil masters. And truly, Aunt Sophie isn’t any more evil than Luli’s parents. Of all the folks in the book who talk about slavery and believe in it, she is one of the few that makes any sense: pretending that a slave in a slave society isn’t a slave, will only lead to hardship for the slave. As a slave owner her solution was to teach Sis Goose how to be a slave. Her evilness isn’t in what she is teaching but that she could have freed her (since she was Sis Goose's legal owner). Luli never quite makes this connection (although, in fairness, the book implies that Luli’s parents requested her freedom).
Rinaldi gave us a character that we were supposed to understand and identify with—Luli. And with that character we were supposed to understand the consequences of the lies that were kept until Juneteenth—the proclamation on June 19, 1865 that finally freed the Texas slaves. But listening to Luli, we don’t understand. The two and a half year lie that kept slaves in bondage after their emancipation was horrific, not because of the lie itself, but rather because of what slavery actually meant to the people enslaved. And Rinaldi glosses over this point.
I cringed throughout the entire first half of the book as Luli extolled the virtues of her stealing, slave owning family. I expected Rinaldi, at some point to show how false Luli’s point of view was. But Rinaldi didn’t. We never get the slaves’ point of view. The two horror stories of slavery are told in passing, about others far away; are received second-hand, well after the fact; are never reflected upon; and are recounted only after slavery ended. The cringing I felt wasn’t because of the things Rinaldi also showed that proved Luli’s unreliability, but the knowledge I carried with me from other historical sources. In the book, the benign aspect of the Holcomb’s slave ownership remains intact, even after the fact—all the important slaves stay on as freedmen, devoted to their masters. And the lesson learned by the reader is that Sis Goose died as a result of lies and truths not told, not because of the institution of slavery.