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YA / Fictional Saga
1800s / early US Civil War
Book 1 of Ella Wood Series
Life is good for Emily Preston, privileged daughter of a plantation owner in South Carolina. She is protected, but allowed her freedom within certain societal bounds. She has time to ride and to socialise, and to go into town and meet her friends. At the age of sixteen, however, she is deemed to be of marriageable age, and what was permissible for her as a child is no longer so. The friends she has made among the slaves throughout her childhood are now to be viewed as chattels and servants. Her dreams of using her unique artistic talents as some sort of career are shattered by a domineering father who demands that she adhere to the rules governing female behaviour, and that a good and acceptable marriage and children should be her only goal.
Emily Preston has already known the wrath of her father when she was sent away to Detroit to stay with an uncle because of her behaviour (events that are not covered by this book). There she learned rather more than he ever intended about the nature of free will, and the possibilities for women’s lives, and though she has kept it hidden from him, she has developed strengths based upon that knowledge which will be called into play as he tries to push her away from her desires and towards the goals he has set for her.
Understanding at last the reality of the slaves’ existence, she is shattered by what that reveals about her father and his friends and equals. Floggings, family separations, and unfair judgements all grate upon her, whereas he barely acknowledges them. Those who mistreat their slaves can extend that brutality towards their wives, but it is hushed up, even by other women who have seen the results. Rebellion drives her father to violence, and she realises that it is the act of a weak man, betraying all that she had believed him to be.
Determined not to allow herself to be pushed into the empty life that has become the lot of one of her newly-married friends, Emily begins to involve herself in dangerous matters, made all the more so by the rumblings of war against the anti-slavery north. For her own sake, and for that of her friends, she is determined to act, and in doing so to risk all for them and for herself.
The author mixes real and imaginary characters in this novel, giving it a voice of authenticity. Emily Preston has appeared in an earlier work aimed at a younger audience, and it should be said that although this is described as a standalone novel, there is reference made to a pivotal episode in her past which needs further clarification here because it explains an important part of her intellectual development.
It should also be noted that ‘Ella Wood’ is not a character per se, but the plantation itself – a little confusing. Overall, though, this is a good, involving and well-constructed read, covering a broad range of issues for women and for Southern society on the brink of massive change.
© Lorraine Swoboda
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