Book reviewing can be a brutal business. It’s all subjective, and my opinion is not your opinion. What speaks to one person will be lost on another. Tastes can vary so widely that reviews can, at worst, discourage readers from reading. No one who loves books really wants that to happen.
With that said, here comes my review of a Willa Cather novel. My library has very few options when it comes to some of the classics. When I went to get My Antonia or Death Comes for the Archbishop I was shocked to discover that they weren’t there. The two novels by Willa Cather that I have heard about my entire life are not at my library. However there was one there called Sapphira and the Slave Girl.
I thoroughly enjoyed Obscure Destinies and expected to be just as pleased with Sapphira and the Slave Girl. I read it. I enjoyed it. I got to the end and felt a little let down. The end was no ending, if you know what I mean.
Sapphira is a woman of substantial means in antebellum Virginia. She owns a couple of dozen slaves, one of whom is named Nancy. Nancy had a white father, and as a result she isn’t very dark. She grows up a favorite of Sapphira and Henry, her husband. Then one day Sapphira’s attitude suddenly changes toward Nancy. This confuses and frightens Nancy because she can’t account for the difference.
Matters become worse with Sapphira invites her dissolute nephew for an extended stay. Martin isn’t a gentleman in the ways that really matter. He begins to pursue the pretty Nancy with rather wicked intentions. No one is quite sure if Sapphira has invited him just to “ruin” Nancy because she seems to go out of her way to provide opportunities.
Eventually Nancy is so frantic to get away from Martin that she confides in Sapphira’s grown daughter that she is contemplating throwing herself in the mill-dam. Mrs. Blake convinces her to hang on a few more days until she can arrange passage on the underground railroad.
Does she get away? Do Martin’s evil designs get completed? Why does Sapphira have it in for her former favorite? Well, you will have to read it to find out. 🙂
When I first started reading I felt almost offended by the continual use of the “n” word. I had to remind myself of the time the book was written. I don’t think Willa Cather approved of the institution of slavery or the relationships it forged between master and slave. But the language is the definitely the language of that day.
I think the book examines some of the social issues of that day and the strange relationship between owners and slaves. Within the slave-owning family there are distinct ideas of the correctness of the practice. There are also distinctive attitudes toward the slaves. Sapphira herself has varying different attitudes and treatments of her slaves. Some are almost friends while others are harshly treated.