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Summer Country
BY Lauren Willig

William Morrow
June 4, 2019/ ISBN 9780062839022
Historical Thriller

Reviewed by  Elise Cooper

Summer Country by Lauren Willig is a very potent story. It allows readers to transport themselves into the minds of the characters during the 1850s in Barbados. What Willig does best is to bring a story to life through heartfelt characters.

Willig noted, "The catalyst for the story was when I took a Caribbean plantation tour about ten years ago. We were told how the plantation burned down, and the Portuguese ward of the owner died in the fire. But it turns out she was neither Portuguese nor his ward, but a child of a slave/owner. He only called her Portuguese to explain her darker skin and to make her European. I started to wonder where is the mother in this story, and why weren't the children and mother freed? What was the relationship between the slave owner and the slave?"

This engaging tale of Victorian values has love, lies, jealousy, and rebellion. The story is powerful enough, but Willig infuses into it a mystery surrounding the Peverills and Beckles sugar plantations. The action shifts back and forth between 1812-1816 and 1854 that includes the moral dilemmas of slavery and how each of the characters reacts. The emphasis is on two cousins: one free, a slave owner, Mary Anne, and the other her slave, Jenny.

I wrote Mary Anne as a survivalist because she suffered through a gruesome upbringing where she was always in fear for her life. Whatever she had the potential to be became warped by that upbringing. We must look at her within the context of the times since she grew up as a slave owner. Her morals are entirely different than ours. I consider her a tragic character. She and Jenny are cousins and in any other world, they would have grown up together and would have been friends. Because Jenny is a slave, their relationships are mistress and slave. Jenny is closest to her than anyone in the world. As much as Mary Anne is capable of loving anyone, she loves Jenny. Yet she is acutely aware Jenny is her possession and expects absolute loyalty. She does not know how to encourage Jenny to love her without commanding it. She looks on Jenny as her sister and her slave. She confides in Jenny and relies on her."

The story opens in 1854 when Emily Dawson and her cousin Adam along with his wife Laura travel to Barbados. Emily goes to see the property, Peverills, a sugar plantation she inherited from her grandfather. It is a burnt-out shell, reduced to ruins in 1816 when a rising of enslaved people sent the island up in flames. During the rebellion, supposedly a Portuguese girl died when the slaves burned the plantation. Nowhere to stay since Peverills is uninhabitable, they accept the invitation of the owner of Beckles sugar plantation, Mrs. Davenant, to stay with her. She has her own hidden agenda that includes trying to match up Emily and her grandson George. But Emily is not interested since she has an attraction to a prominent medical doctor, Nathaniel Braithwaite, an Afro-Caribbean, who began life as a slave at the Beckles plantation.

Rewind to 1812 where Charles Davenant has inherited Peverills, much to the chagrin of his younger brother, Robert. Charles tries to mollify Robert by encouraging him to court Mary Anne, heiress to Beckles, because he only has eyes for the enslaved mixed-race maid/slave, Jenny.

Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings come to mind. In doing her research Willig, "I read articles on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and had so many questions. Can he call her his mistress when she was a slave woman? Was their relationship based on affection when she had no choice in the matter? Could they ever actually be in love? How do you take away the coercion element? After reading the book Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Women in Barbados by Hilary Beckles, I realized that these relationships ran the gamut. Some had general affection while some slaves used it to free themselves and their offspring by bearing children to white men. Charles and Jefferson are one of the same mind. They had the high ordeals yet were so deeply entrenched in the system of slavery. They cannot figure out how to extricate themselves. In Barbados, there was a huge tax that had to paid by anyone who freed a slave. Unfortunately, Charles did not have the cash to free his own slaves because the fees were deliberately punitively high."

This historical novel and mystery has lies, greed, clandestine love, and heartbreaking betrayal. Through the exploration of slavery, readers take a journey with the passionate characters.

Reviewed 2019