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
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,
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
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.