This is the story of two women; Sarah Campbell and Theodora Allen. Sarah was born in 1846, a slave at the Allen Estates. Theodora Allen married Cornelius, the master of the plantation. Sarah is also the bastard daughter of Cornelius, half sister to Theodora’s Clarissa. Sarah’s mother Emmeline only goes to Cornelius’ bed to ensure her children will stay on the plantation. Despite the feeling of betrayal, Theodora comes to care for both Emmeline and Sarah, especially since Sarah is not only Clarissa’s maid, but also her childhood companion, as well as one of the gifts that Cornelius gives Clarissa when she gets married. This is The Wedding Gift by Marlene Suyapa Bodden.
Told in alternating first-person narratives, that slightly backtrack in time between chapters, this novel unfolds while looking at two sides of the same story. On the one hand we have the perspective of the slave women Sarah. On the other we have the confidences of the plantation owner’s wife Theodora. More importantly, we also see how these two women interact with each other as well as their relationships to their own families, and each others’ families. In other words, these are the stories of one woman and her daughter, and one daughter and her mother.
There are many stories about slavery before the American Civil War. This one is somewhat out of the ordinary in that we get parallel versions of the tale from both sides of the story – from the slave and from her owner. What I found most interesting was that in many ways, the owner Theodora was as much of a slave as Sarah. She was equally subject to the will of her husband as were her slaves. The difference was that Cornelius couldn’t sell her if she disobeyed him. Also, in some ways Sarah was freer than Theodora because Sarah always could attempt to escape. If Sarah was successful, she could start a new life elsewhere, where she be welcomed and accepted. On the other hand, as long as Cornelius was alive, Theodora could go nowhere without scandal and shame following her.
It also occurred to me that this is more a story about relationships between mothers and their daughters, as well as vice versa, than it is about slavery. To what lengths will a mother go to help her child, or a daughter go to care for her mother? All these aspects are very well covered in this novel through the two narratives. In addition, despite Sarah’s unusual literacy, the two women’s voices are distinctive enough to easily distinguish between them.
With all of this, one might think that the story would be extremely gripping. In fact, throughout most of the book, we are swept along with these tales. However, as we near the end, parts of the narrative became technical and stilted. In some ways, from a certain point on, I felt like I was getting more lessons in legal, geographical and historical matters than I was following the stories of these two women. And while the conclusion of the novel came with an unexpected twist, by that time I was already becoming less invested in the outcomes of these women’s stories. Moreover, this twist also felt a bit too out of the blue, and slightly inconsistent with the character. This isn’t to say that I would have preferred an ending that came to a happier conclusion, but I would have liked it to be a bit more cohesive with the rest of the tale.
Marlene Suyapa Bodden gives us a gently written story that unfolds elegantly along one of America’s darkest areas of its history. She holds little back describing some of these horrors, but also reminds us of the kindnesses of those who rejected slavery. Together with this, she gives us food for thought about the essence of freedom, and a woman’s role in society and family. While this was an enjoyable read for the most part, I was less than enamored with the content and tone of the end of the book. For this, I feel The Wedding Gift deserves three stars out of five.
The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden
Published by Century, May 2013
With thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy.
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