Friday, October 18, 2013

The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden, a drama-filled novel about American slavery

Marlen Suyapa Bodden's The Wedding Gift first came to my attention two years ago, when it was still a self-published novel achieving a remarkable amount of success.  Soon after, I found this July 2012 article from the Wall Street Journal talking about its subsequent sale to St. Martin's Press and several other international publishers in six-figure deals.

The article makes some accurate points.  In particular: fiction about slavery in the antebellum South is a hard sell.  This is both a painful and shameful time in American history, and the plight of slaves is difficult to read about.  On the other hand, it's a topic of critical importance, not just for understanding our past mistakes but also since slavery still exists in many forms around the world.  (Bodden is a longtime attorney and anti-slavery advocate.)  The key to finding success in historical fiction with this uncomfortable theme is to wrap it into an attention-grabbing story, and that's exactly what Bodden has done.

Set in 1852, The Wedding Gift moves between the viewpoints of two women of vastly different social classes while drawing parallels between their experiences.  Sarah is a young woman born into slavery on a 7,800 acre plantation in east Alabama called Allen Estates.  She is the unacknowledged daughter of the courageous and long-suffering Emmeline, Cornelius Allen's chief housekeeper, and Mr. Allen himself.  The second narrator is Theodora Allen, Cornelius' wife, an intellectually-minded aspiring writer who was forced to bury her dreams and regularly endures her domineering, alcoholic husband's physical abuse.

There's a good amount of drama heading out of the gates, as young Sarah learns about her status and true identity.  She finagles her way into learning to read and write, something which was against the law for a slave.  Sarah also trains as a personal maid to Clarissa Allen, her privileged, golden-haired half-sister.  A involving subplot featuring Sarah's other half-sister Belle, Emmeline's older daughter, illustrates the degradations endured by slaves and how their lives can change on the whim of a vengeful master.  In intervening chapters, Theodora reveals her own powerlessness and how she must walk on eggshells to avoid inciting her husband's anger.

Then comes the time, about halfway through, when Sarah accompanies Clarissa to her husband's plantation after she marries, becoming in effect a living, breathing "wedding gift."  This is revealed by the title, so there aren't many surprises on that score, but it's at this point where the plot begins to twist in considerably more unpredictable ways.  As for the ending... it's designed to shock, and it does.  I saw part of it coming but not all.

The Wedding Gift is focused on the experiences of women: the ties that form among them, how the lives they're forced to lead transform their character, and how they both endure and strive to escape from their isolated, repressive, male-dominated world.  It also makes clear the price that women, both free and slave, might pay if they manage to flee.  In that aspect it excels; the female characters' relationships feel complex and real.  As for the men there are a few that deserve readers' respect, but not many.

There are some telling signs that this is a first novel: the dialogue, especially Theodora's, can be stiff, and the direct first-person approach means there's much that's told rather than shown to readers. That said, it sets a page-turning pace that rarely lets up, and there's a fascinating section toward the end that delves into legal matters – the author's area of expertise – at that time and place.

Although Kathleen Grissom's The Kitchen House remains the most compelling novel I've read on this subject, The Wedding Gift held my focus throughout, and I wouldn't hesitate to read whatever the author writes next.

Marlen Suyapa Bodden's The Wedding Gift was published by St. Martin's Press in September in hardcover ($25.99, Can $29.99) and as an ebook ($11.99/Can$12.99).  In the UK, the publisher is Century (£12.99, hardcover).

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