Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Review: The Wedding Gift

The Wedding Gift
By Marlen Suyapa Bodden

“The Wedding Gift” is the debut novel of New York lawyer, turned novelist, Marlen Suyapa Bodden. Set in antebellum Alabama, the focus of Ms. Bodden’s novel is the complex relationship between slaves and their owners.

Sarah Campbell, Ms. Bodden’s protagonist, is a light skinned slave who has dreamed of freedom her entire life. She is the product of a long term sexual relationship between her mother, Emmeline, a slave, and her owner, Cornelius Allen.

Cornelius, The Allen family patriarch, serves Ms. Bodden’s plot well as the antagonist of the story, he is manipulative, vindictive and at times physically violent. Interestingly enough, his manipulative machinations, vindictiveness and physical violence are usually focused on the females of Ms. Bodden’s novel, be they either black or white. When Emmeline stops going to him at night, Mr. Allen retaliates by selling Sarah’s sister Belle.

The Allen’s daughter, Clarissa is the engine that drives Ms. Bodden’s story forward. Sarah and Clarissa are both roughly the same age, and from childhood Sarah has been groomed to be Clarissa’s servant. As girls Sarah and Clarissa were playmates. Clarissa asked that Sarah be allowed to sit with her during lessons with her mother. Consequently Sarah learned to both read and write, at the time a crime for both the slave and the teacher. When Clarissa marries, Sarah is to go with her and act as her personal servant.

When Clarissa comes of age she is actively courted by two suitors; her unexpected pregnancy sets in motion a series of events which ultimately leads to Sarah’s freedom and the Allen family’s ultimate destruction.

A parallel theme in the novel is the subjugation of women in the American south. Sarah’s first person narrative alternates with that of Cornelius’ wife Theodora, juxtaposing the two women’s lives. On the surface Theodora Allen’s life seems genteel, she is a white woman of wealth in the south, but by highlighting the relationship between Cornelius, his wife and his daughter once Clarissa’s pregnancy is revealed, Ms. Bodden proposes that the role of a white woman in the south, is only slightly above that of the slave; that women and slaves are the property of their white male masters, and must obey them or suffer the consequences.

Ms. Bodden’s tome is well written and carefully researched. It is fully grounded on historical facts, though her narrative leans toward the melodramatic. Sarah and Theodora, her two narrators, seem to by fully fleshed out characters, but Cornelius is a caricature of the worst imaginable kind of slave owner.

Ms. Bodden’s title, “The Wedding Gift” is somewhat misleading. Sarah is groomed to be Clarissa’s servant from a very young age, and everyone acknowledges that when Clarissa marries Sarah will go with her. Sarah is never presented to Clarissa as a wedding gift.

Though the cover art was probably not within the realm of Ms. Bodden’s control, it is also a bit misleading as the big dipper is prominently displayed pointing the way north to freedom, but Sarah ultimately finds her freedom by going south. The big dipper, also known as the “drinking gourd,” looms large in slave literature and song is never once mentioned in Ms. Bodden’s text.

“The Wedding Gift” is a highly enjoyable novel. It should not be taken as an accurate representation of slavery in the American South. It is a novel, and as such it must follow the conventions of fictional storytelling. It is no more an accurate representation of antebellum life in the American south than are Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” or Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind.”

ISBN 978-1439269893, BookSurge Publishing, © 2009, Hardcover, 324 pages, $27.99

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