By Clover Carroll
I confess: I’m a two-timer, a book club polygamist. Although I regret missing the Crozet Library Book Group’s discussion of The Echo Maker by Richard Ford Monday, July 8 while I am on vacation, my reading habit has been admirably sustained with Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather, which I just finished reading for my other book club of old Ivy friends.
While Cather is best known for her western novels such as O Pioneers! (1913) (also an upcoming Crozet Library Book Group selection), My Antonia (1918), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) which I reviewed here in 2010, she was actually born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia, west of Winchester. In 1883, when Cather was nine, her family followed the lure of westward migration to settle in Red Cloud, Nebraska where, fascinated with the sweeping landscape and grueling pioneer lifestyle of the Great Plains, she set her most famous novels. Although written in the modern era, her beautifully written and meticulously researched historical novels celebrate, and to some extent romanticize, the past. A master storyteller, Cather gives us insight into daily life during bygone eras while holding our interest with inventive plots, realistic dialogue, and fully developed characters—especially strong, independent heroines who afford us a feminist perspective on the past. Her clear, graceful prose and her vivid descriptions are a pleasure to read. Cather won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for One of Ours and is recognized as one of the leading American novelists of the 20th century.
Sapphira and the Slave Girl, published in 1940, is Cather’s last novel and the only one set in Virginia. Based on family stories, this is a relatively short, accessible, but nuanced book about rural Southern ante-bellum life, especially as it impacted women. Cather takes great care to document 19th century backcountry life, describing work methods, cooking, travel, dress, and social customs in meticulous detail. As the novel opens in 1856, we meet Sapphira Colbert, daughter of a well-to-do Loudoun County family, who has married “beneath” her and moved with her new husband Henry to the Mill Farm, a large property she inherited in Back Creek near Winchester. Although neither Henry nor their new neighbors believe in slavery, Sapphira brings with her around twenty slaves, among them her own ladies’ maid Till, whose daughter Nancy was conceived with a visiting white painter from Baltimore. Sapphira, who is unable to walk due to swelling in her legs and feet, is confined to a wheelchair.
Thus the stage is set for the main action of the book. It is not surprising that Sapphira, who rules the household with an iron hand, becomes jealous of Till’s mulatto daughter, called “yaller gal” by the other slaves, who has grown into a beautiful young woman. Henry, portrayed as a dutiful and upright man, highly values Nancy’s careful attention to his needs as she maintains the mill house, but views her more as a daughter than as the intimate rival that Sapphira imagines. When she proposes to Henry that they sell Nancy, he won’t hear of it, citing Till’s family’s longstanding loyalty to their own.
Determined to “find some other way,” Sapphira invites a rakish, ne’er-do-well nephew to visit. True to form, Martin is strongly attracted to the lovely slave girl and tries repeatedly to molest her. To me, this theme of the complete and appalling vulnerability of slave women, especially attractive ones, to the whimsical desires of plantation men is the lesson of the book.
Knowing that if she is raped she herself will be blamed and her life ruined, in desperation Nancy appeals to Sapphira’s widowed daughter, Rachel Blake, who has strong abolitionist sympathies. Through clandestine arrangements and Henry’s financial help, Rachel helps Nancy to escape via the Underground Railroad and to make her way to freedom in Canada. This causes a rift with her mother that seems irreparable.
The best kind of book is hard to put down, in part because a compelling plot propels the narrative forward, but also because the world created by the author is so fully-formed and vivid that we don’t want to leave it. This book succeeds in the first instance, but is not completely successful in the second. Critics have faulted Cather with softening the hardships and violence of slave life; Till and others are treated at part of the family and, when freed late in the book, seem reluctant to leave. Others argue that Cather defies typical plantation stereotypes by portraying a plantation largely run by a woman, and by preventing the rape from happening. I found her chilling and realistic portrayal of Nancy’s powerlessness alone to be heart-rending. Cather takes care to include a full rendition of the middle passage in the story of Old Jezebel’s kidnapping and enslavement in Africa. The problem may arise from the fact that Cather was both writing a loving reminiscence of her childhood home as well as exploring a dark period in her family’s history as slaveholders. Like Gone with the Wind (Mitchell), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain), and other novels set before the Civil War, the novel makes liberal use of the terms darky and the n-word, which may be why it is seldom read in schools today. Otherwise, it would make an appealing middle- or high-school choice, with its threatened, teenaged protagonist and dangerous escape.
Lulled into omniscience throughout the book by a third-person narrator, we are pulled up short by a sudden epilogue told in the first person by a child of five years old, witness to events that take place 25 years later. It finally dawns on us as we plow confusedly forward that this child is none other than the author herself, suddenly become a character in her own novel. Through the child Cather’s eyes, we share in the joy and wonder of Nancy’s safe return and reunion with her mother and her rescuer. Here we learn how Nancy’s escape had become the stuff of family legend: “Ever since I could remember anything, I had heard about Nancy.” Through this intimate gesture by the then-famous author, we learn that this and other family stories had been told by older relatives and servants around the kitchen table while sharing “women’s work” such as quilting and knitting. Although the exact relation of Cather to her characters is left vague, it is assumed that the character of Sapphira was based on her great-grandmother.