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Property, by Valerie Martin

Property, by Valerie Martin

The title of this short novel could be read in multiple ways: “property” refers to the slave, Sarah, owned by the main character, a white woman named Manon. It could also refer to Manon herself, who is in a way the “property” of her husband. When Manon inherits her mother’s house, it is by law her husband’s property, since she “belongs” to him.

Property was first published in 2003 and won the Orange Prize for Fiction by a female author (now called the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction). It is told in first person through the voice of Manon, a middle-class Creole woman in Louisiana before the Civil War. As a reader, I had a complicated reaction to Manon. I felt sorry for her because of her marriage to a boorish, sadistic man, and I was rooting for her to find a way to escape from the marriage. But I also found her selfish and cold: she has little sympathy for Sarah, who is her husband’s mistress, and who is also searching for a way to escape – this time not just from one man, but from slavery itself.

The story takes place during a time of slave unrest and revolt. Manon is aware of the situation, but is mostly concerned with herself. The author, Valerie Martin, has created a complex character to allow the reader to experience, through Manon’s voice, what it would be like to be a white woman slave-owner. What contorted arguments would a woman like that have to believe in order to maintain the status quo? Yet as distasteful as Manon is, Martin manages to make her a sympathetic character. As a child, she lost her father. Because of her lack of wealth, she felt pressure to marry a man she didn’t love. She is not able to have children, but her husband fathers children with her own slave.

Each scene in this novella is rich with tension and layered with nuances of character.

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis

I first heard about The Wife of Martin Guerre when I was looking for novellas by women, and ran across a comment that Vikram Seth (one of my favorite novelists and the author of A Suitable Boy) re-reads The Wife of Martin Guerre every year.  In a recent article in the Washington Post, book reviewer Michael Dirda praised it as one of the most perfect examples of the novella form.

The story concerns a young woman, Bertrande, living in the French countryside in the 1500’s, who marries a difficult husband, Martin. After she has a child, he disappears suddenly, and reappears eight years later, a kinder man. Yet Bertrande begins to suspect that this returned man is not actually her husband. She is a deeply religious person, and is tormented by the idea that she is living with a man who is not truly her husband. Will she accuse him of being an imposter, despite the fact that everyone in the family adores him and assures her that this is really Martin? The story starts calmly, but gradually becomes more and more gripping, building to an astonishing ending.

The writing style is spare but precise, imagistic, and emotionally evocative. Here is a section towards the beginning of the book, during the wedding celebration of Bertrande and Martin, both eleven years old. After the wedding feast, Bertrande is wandering around the dining area:

In the middle of the wall to the right, however, she spied a door, and toward that she gradually made her way. It proved to be the entrance to a long cold corridor, from which the doors opened into storerooms, rooms for the shepherds, and lighted only by a small window of which the wooden shutters were closed. Another person had taken refuge from the festivities in this corridor, and was intent upon undoing the bolts of the shutters. The half of the shutter folded back, a flood of sharp snowy sunlight fell into the corridor, and in its brightness she recognized Martin. She made a step forward, uncertainly, and Martin, hearing it, turned and advanced upon her, his hands outstretched and a fearsome expression on his long, young face. (p. 12)

First published in 1941, The Wife of Martin Guerre has inspired two movies and a nonfiction history book. Yet now it can be difficult to find. Seek it out—it is a gem. This slim volume (109 pages), based on an actual legal trial, is quietly and beautifully compelling.

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

Maryse Condé, a writer of African-Caribbean heritage, expands on the story of Tituba, the black slave from Barbados accused of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. In an interview printed at the back of the book, Condé reveals that she learned about Tituba by accident when she got lost in a library. She became curious, and sought more facts about her life. Finding very little, Condé says “I decided I was going to write her story out of my own dreams” (p. 199).

Originally written in French, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem imagines the entire life of Tituba, from her conception on a ship to Barbados, to her move to Massachusetts, and to her death and beyond, within the space of 179 pages. It is unusual for a short novel to cover such a broad span of time and multiple settings. In addition, the book includes fantastical elements. After Tituba’s mother dies, she is raised by a woman versed in healing and magic, who teaches her to communicate with the dead, among other skills. As a result, Tituba’s dead relatives are frequent visitors.

Tituba tells her own story in first person in a fast-paced, sometimes mocking way: she can see the humor of her often tragic situations from beyond the curtain of death. If you’re looking for a novel that reveals Tituba as a misunderstood victim, this is not the book. Tituba is compassionate when it suits her, but she is also at times vengeful, and sometimes makes bad decisions despite the advice of her relatives from the beyond. Condé also plays with the idea of a “historical” novel by including a fictional character, Hester Prynne, in the middle, and by making Tituba aware of how she is portrayed (or ignored) in history and how she is remembered by future generations.

Given what I knew of the Salem witch trials, I expected a realistic, heavy, long novel. What I got was a dash through the life of an extraordinary woman who is determined not to be forgotten.

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys

Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of the “madwoman in the attic” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre—the woman who was the first wife of Edward Rochester, Jane’s lover. According to Jane Eyre, this madwoman was Bertha Antoinetta Mason, born and raised in Jamaica. She inherited the madness that ran in her family. Rochester claims that he was not told of this inherited insanity before his marriage. Later in the book, we learn that she sets fire to the house and burns it to the ground.

Jean Rhys was the pen name of Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams, born on the West Indies island of Dominica in 1890. Her father was Welsh and her mother was a white Creole (born and raised in the West Indies). She moved to England at the age of 17. Her life story sounds fascinating, and is the subject of a biography, The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys, by Lilian Pizzichini.

Rhys takes the sketch of Bertha Antoinetta Mason given in Jane Eyre and constructs a fully realized character, starting with her childhood in Jamaica, where she lives on Coulibri, a crumbling estate, with her mother and ill brother in the mid-1800s. The family has fallen on hard times: her father is dead, most of their slaves have fled, and the other white people in Jamaica shun them because they are Creoles. The young Antoinette’s best friend is her nanny, a black woman who has knowledge of obeah (folk magic).

The novel is told in an imagistic style, and readers must piece together events and relationships from sometimes disconnected scenes. The writing style is lush and descriptive. Here is a passage towards the beginning, as the child Antoinette, shunned, lonely and almost abandoned by her restless mother, struggles to find a way to spend her time:

I took another road, past the old sugar works and the water wheel that had not turned for years. I went to parts of Coulibri that I had not seen, where there was no road, no path, no track. And if the razor grass cut my legs and arms I would think “It’s better than people.” Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin—once I saw a snake. All better than people (p. 28).

Antoinette’s mother soon marries a Mr. Mason, and Antoinette takes his last name. (It is this man’s son—Antoinette’s step-brother—who, in Jane Eyre, travels to England to stop the marriage between Jane and Rochester). Antoinette’s mother goes mad from grief due to tragic events. This first section of the novel is told from Antoinette’s point of view.

The second section, which starts after Antoinette is persuaded to marry Edward Rochester, visiting from England, is told from Rochester’s point of view. It is not entirely clear why they get married. Is Rochester only interested in her wealth, to be inherited from Mr. Mason? Does she really love him? He insists on calling her “Bertha” because he likes the name, even though that is not her name, and even though she asks him not to. This section takes place during their honeymoon on a small island in the West Indies. Rochester hears rumors about his wife and her companions, and is not sure who or what to believe. His mental confusion is mirrored by his confusion at the unfamiliar landscape in which he finds himself.

The third section, again told through the eyes of Antoinette, who is now insane, takes place in England during the time she is imprisoned in the attic of Rochester’s mansion. Readers familiar with Jane Eyre will notice events and incidents that are mentioned in that novel, but now re-told through the eyes of the insane Antoinette.

Wide Sargasso Sea is a short, intense book, as colorful as the tropical West Indies home of Antoinette.

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women, by Velma Wallis

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival was a surprise bestseller when it was first published in 1993. This short novel (140 pages) is based on an Athabaskan Indian legend handed down to the author from her mother. Velma Wallis is an Athabaskan Indian who grew up in a remote Alaskan village.

The novel takes place above the Arctic circle near the Yukon River, in an unspecified time before the arrival of the Europeans. As the title indicates, the story concerns two old women, Sa’ (75 years old) and Ch’idzigyaak (80 years old). When was the last time you read a novel about the adventures of elderly women? These women have a habit of complaining about their aches and pains as an excuse to avoid hard work. During a cold autumn, at a time of scarce food, the chief of their band decides that the women must be left behind as the younger members move on in search of food.

At first the old women are stunned, and even resigned to dying. Yet they have to admit that they are still capable of hard work. With the help of some tools and supplies they have been left with, they successfully hunt and trap small game. Still, the long, cold winter looms ahead. Will they be able to survive? They decide to set up a more permanent winter camp along a creek teeming with fish that Ch’idzigyaak remembered visiting years ago, and begin their trek to this location.

In writing this book, Velma Wallis relied on her own skills and knowledge of surviving off the land in a remote area. I enjoyed the descriptions of how the women went about the tasks of daily living: maintaining the fire, making snowshoes, using caribou skins to fashion a sled, and digging a temporary snow shelter.

The writing style is simple and direct. Here is a paragraph just after the women learn they are to be left behind:

The two women sat old and small before the campfire with their chins held up proudly, disguising their shock. In their younger days they had seen very old people left behind, but they never expected such a fate. They stared ahead numbly as if they had not heard the chief condemn them to a certain death—to be left alone to fend for themselves in a land that understood only strength. Two weak old women stood no chance against such a rule. The news left them without words or action and no way to defend themselves. (p. 7)

Illustrations by Athabaskan Indian artist Jim Grant help readers picture the characters and scenes. This lovely, inspiring book in the vein of My Side of the Mountain can be enjoyed by middle and high school students as well as adults.