The Summer Country – by Lauren Willig – book review

One of the things I love about historical fiction is its ability to translate complex social issues into their impact on the everyday lives of human beings. This multi-generational saga does this with the institution of slavery. A VERY compelling and enjoyable read. I gave it an overall four stars on Goodreads, but it’s really five stars for pure enjoyment.

The setting is 19th century Barbados. Through alternating chapters, the author lays out two gripping story lines, each with a strong female protagonist:
• The first takes place in 1812, a time when slavery formed the economic foundation of the sugar crop and wealthy white plantation owners naively believed that by meeting out what THEY considered less brutal punishment, they could ensure the loyalty and contentment of the people they owned. Miss Mary Anne Beckles, heir to a great plantation, but controlled by the threatening authority of her uncle and guardian, becomes one such owner. Her goal is to marry quickly and well – mostly to escape her uncle’s control.
• The second thread, in 1854 (after slavery in Barbados was outlawed), involves an impoverished British minister’s daughter, Emily Dawson, who unexpectedly inherits a ruined and abandoned Barbados plantation from her grandfather and must decide whether to salvage or sell it.

Naturally, some of the characters from 1854 are connected to the those from 1812. But it will take you until the very last pages to understand all the TRUE relationships. Along the way you will witness how the institution of slavery emotionally impacted the lives of both owners and enslaved people. And about the ways life changed, and did NOT change, once slavery was LEGALLY ended.

The characters are rich and distinctive. There are strong-willed women who wield power, a dissolute young man out to prove his worth, and idealists who believe they can make society more just. You’ll get a glimpse into medical care during this era when a cholera epidemic strikes. And plenty of reminders about the hypocrisy of the landed class where men routinely kept black mistresses and sometimes even second families. Most interesting to me was exploring interracial romance and how much societal norms shifted between the two time periods.

As Author Lauren Willig explains in the Afterword, the book is based on many years of extensive research and many of her characters are based on actual historical figures. One of her stated goals was to develop a believable inner voice for an enslaved female in 1812 — which is difficult given that there is virtually no primary source material to reference. This I believe she did exceptionally well in the character of Jenny – the Mulatto who serves as Mary Anne’s personal maid. Just how DOES someone OWNED by another balance between giving the appearance of loyal service, all the while knowing you have NO other options?

Author Lauren Willig (from her Website)

This is my first exposure to this author but it won’t be my last because this was a GREAT historical novel. One suggestion I offer. For the first 100 pages or so, I found I had difficulty keeping track of all the various characters from the two time periods, some of whom have the same last name. I finally wound up creating a “crib” sheet to help (included below). Of course I didn’t need it by page 250, but I wish I had done it at the start.

More about the author.

My Crib Sheet:

1812
MISS MARY ANNE BECKLES – heir to Beckles plantation, interested in Charles Davenant
COLONEL LYONS – uncle & guardian to Mary Ann
JENNY – maid to Mary Ann, natural daughter of Colonel Lyons
CHARLES DAVENANT – heir to Peverills Plantation, educated in England
ROBERT DAVENANT – younger brother to Charles, buddy to Colonel Lyons, former suitor to Mary Anne
JONATHAN FENTY – bookkeeper at Peverills

1854
EMILY DAWSON –inherited wrecked Perverills from grandfather Jonathan Fenty
ADAM FENTY – Emily’s cousin and travel companion
LAURA FENTY – Emily’s best friend and Adam’s wife
MRS. DAVENANT – owner of Beckles Plantation, grandmother to George, her family once owned Peverills
GEORGE DAVENANT – loyal grandson, raised by Mrs. Davenant
DR. NATHANIEL BRAITHWAITE – former slave at Beckles Plantation, childhood friend of George Davenant, nephew to Mr. Turner
MR. TURNER – former agent for Peverills, former slave
MRS. TURNER – free black for generations