A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia

In 1860 Louisiana, the plantation-owning Guilbert family has fallen on hard times, at least according to eldest son and heir Lucien. Though they still maintain their palatial home, land and slaves, Lucian’s business failures and growing debt have put the property at risk. Lucien is now dependent on Byron, his son, to make a good match and marry the respectable Eugenie Duhon, who’s hand comes with a sizable dowry. Lucien’s mother, Madame Sylvie, the aged matriarch of the ironically named Le Petit Cottage plantation, is not so worried. Years ago she buried her dead husband’s gold in a secret location in the cane fields and when the time is right, she will tell Lucien where to dig. Until then, she is more concerned with her legacy. Madame Sylvie has hired a French painter to come to Le Petit Cottage in St. James parish and paint her portrait, so that future generations of Guilberts will see her noble likeness and appreciate the many sacrifices she has made to maintain the Guilbert family reputation.

Like many people of their time, the Guilberts believe that everything they have was earned by themselves, when in reality, it is made possible by the enslaved people that are born, work and die on their plantation. They do not recognize the humanity of enslaved people, nor would it ever occur to them to do so. People like Marie and Louise, twin sisters who serve as housemaids and are the product their mother being raped by one of Lucien’s French business associates. Like Lily, the cook who rarely speaks, and never about her beloved son Jesse who Lucien callously murdered when he believed Jesse and Byron to be too close as children. Like Thisbe, who was taken from her family in the fields when she was only six years old, given the name of Marie Antoinette’s dog and made to be Madame Sylvie’s hands and feet. She is never to speak or have a thought of her own, though the one thing Madame can’t control is her quick mind. But a reckoning is coming, in the form of a party to celebrate Madame’s finished portrait, where all will be revealed, including the location of the hidden gold and the true Guilbert family legacy that Madame Sylvie has tried desperately to ignore, despite the fact that the violent, shameful evidence of it is all around her.

Award winning author Rita Williams-Garcia has penned a mesmerizing and meticulously researched anti-Gone with the Wind that never looks away from the unvarnished reality of the institution of slavery in the United States. In her illuminating author’s note, RWG explains that her story focuses on the white plantation owners rather than the enslaved people who worked their land because the fact is that racism is a white problem, not a Black one: “Take the free and enslaved Black people out of it. While they would be present in the story, I wouldn’t task them…to prove themselves extraordinary or human. Instead I would look at a family whose livelihood insisted on slavery, and the enduring legacy of racism handed down to their heirs, regardless of their connection to an Antebellum past.” Unlike anything RWG has written before (and trust me, I’ve read every one) this extraordinary historical fiction will give you a true understanding of America’s slave-holding past and how it ties into our racially divided nation today, while also being an utterly compelling and thrillingly dramatic epic that showcases the contradictory, stubborn and ultimately hopeful nature of our flawed human condition. DO NOT MISS IT!

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