Olivia’s marriage to an African-American man was unacceptable to her mother Emma, Southern-bred descendant of prominent South Carolina slaveholders. Olivia assumed that bigotry was the product of her mother’s loyalty to long-dead relatives, an allegiance to maintain the family’s white blood line. After Emma’s death though, Olivia finds a letter and an old journal among her belongings. Soon she discovers the secret that prompted Emma to irrationally blame an entire race -- a secret that had nothing to do with family history, although it strongly paralleled another tragic event from the past.
Forbidden love, lust, violence and murder are all strong elements in this exceptional African-American slavery novel.
The book starts in the present day. Olivia's late mother never accepted her daughter's coloured husband. Why? Rummaging in her mother's wardrobe, Olivia finds the answer and an old journal written in the middle of the 19th century by a family ancestor, a white girl named Marianne. Reading this journal, Olivia is taken back in time, discovering shocking secrets that were kept hidden behind the gates of the upstanding Witherell family's South Carolina rice plantation - Heavenly plantation - so long ago.
1846. Black slaves Willa Grigsby and her mother Heddie are brought to Heavenly's 'big house'. Heddie is to serve as wet nurse for the mistress's newly-born twin boys. Young Willa is allowed to play with and soon forms a strong bond with the other Witherell children, Marianne and Seth. These kids do not yet know the true savage nature of slavery and accept Willa as one of them. (I'm not sure if this could have really be allowed to happen back then.)
Foster, the eldest Witherell sibling, however does not like the 'dirty little slave girl'. For him the blacks are just a commodity that can be dominated and used whenever and as needed. And this is his exact interest in Willa. He'll show her one day.
Soon Willa is made aware that the possibilities for her life as a slave are severely limited and she can never have the same opportunities as her white friends. The difference between the races is clear - one orders, the other obeys.
Growing up into a beautiful woman and an excellent seamstress, Willa's presence at the plantation affects the lives of all those around her. Both black and white folk start to look at her with different eyes. Soon love, lust, hatred and violence around her intensify, moulding her life in the process.
The main characters in the novel are well-developed with the exception of the young twins on which I would have liked to learn more. Also, I thought that Olivia and her story could have been left out completely by the author as Olivia's and Willa's stories seem to have nothing to do with each other. Only in the last chapter, the correlation between the two stories is made clear. Other than that, this is a great book and I highly recommend it!