About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, October 17, 2011

#83: Original Sins

Original Sins, by Peg Kingman (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2010)

"Why would a runaway Virginia slave -- having built a rewarding life in the East Indies as a silk merchant -- risk her own freedom and that of her two sons by returning to America in 1840, eighteen years after taking her freedom? Annie -- now Anibaddh Lyngdoh -- claims that she intends to introduce a new kind of silk to the floundering American silk industry. But her true reason, as discovered by her old friend Grace MacDonald Pollocke, is far more personal -- to find the child she abandoned when she ran away.

"Grace, orphaned in early childhood, has grown up in India and China with her stepmother. She is now married, has a young son of her own, and is a portrait painter living in Philadelphia. Anibaddh cannot safely travel south, and so Grace goes in her place. The investigation leads her to the Virginia plantation where Annie was raised in slavery and where Grace's own cousins live. There old sins are discovered, and new ones committed. What crimes may be justified, Grace wonders, in the service of a higher justice? Deceit, forgery, fraud, perjury ... even murder?

"This novel thrillingly evokes a nineteenth-century America not so different from the present_ a time of stunning new technologies and financial collapse, and when religious and racial views collide with avowed principles of morality and law."

Opening Line:
"Grace had imagined Daniel's homecoming hundreds of times; repeatedly she had painted the scene in her mind's eye."

My Take:
A bit of a slow starter, but surprisingly engaging once it got going.

As the opening line above suggests, the story opens with Grace eagerly awaiting her husband's arrival from Canton, where they met and married. A few chapters in, he arrives, with a surprise guest: Anibaddh Lyngdoh, who hasn't set foot on American soil since escaping from slavery and preventing eight-year-old Grace from being kidnapped by her mother's relatives in Scotland 18 years earlier. While Anibaddh claims to be here only briefly, to introduce her silks to the American market before delivering her sons to school in Europe, the astute Grace quickly notices that she seems to be making plans for a much longer stay ... and deduces, based on Anibaddh's hints and her own devotion to her baby son Jamie, that she's really come back to find and free Diana, the daughter she left behind in Virginia almost two decades ago.

The plot thickens considerably when Anibaddh recognizes one of Grace's "sitters" (portrait-painting customers), Mrs. Ambler, and the sister who accompanies her, Mrs. MacFarlane, as none other than the Grants, her own former owners and Grace's cousins. This revelation leads Grace to accept the sisters' invitation to come home to Virginia with them; under the guise of painting portraits of the whole family and attending a much-anticipated religious camp meeting, Grace will try to find Diana and send word back to Anibaddh. She keeps her maiden name a secret, and for the most part, finds the sisters and their mutual aunt, Bella Johnstone, to be insufferable pieces of work -- though she does find an unexpected ally in the youngest, unmarried Grant sister, aspiring chemist Julia, and is surprised to find herself coming to love their father (and her uncle), Judge Grant, an old man suffering from severe kidney stones. More surprising still, she discovers at the camp meeting that the elder Mr. MacFarlane, father of Mrs. MacFarlane's abusive husband, is also a kindred spirit ... at least when it comes to religious views, or lack thereof.

Then all hell breaks loose. On the same night, Diana runs away, and Judge Grant dies. The family is in an uproar when it's revealed that the Judge had been trustee for his late sister's estate, of which that ungrateful Scottish niece who refused to come to Virgina all those years ago is the sole beneficiary. Some debate ensures as to whether it's worth trying to find her or not, though the question is of little practical consequences; over the last few years, it seems the trust just happened to be invested in the horses that died and the slaves who'd run away or become too old to work, so what should have been worth $2,000 is only about $25. Enraged by the direction the conversation has taken, Grace fesses up and admits that she herself is the former Grace MacDonald, and the beneficiary of the trust. Not surprisingly, this does not go over well, and she ends up walking the 20-odd miles to Alexandria to catch a train home. The story doesn't end here, however, and the legal maneuvers that ensue have enormous repercussions not just for Grace, but for Anibaddh and her family.

At first, I had some reservations about telling a story about slavery from the point of view of a white, Scottish woman. I eventually got over them; by the end of the book, it seems that Kingman may have done this to make Grace (and through her, the average white reader) question our own complicity in maintaining slavery for so long, even if we might believe we're innocent. I also give the author props for setting the story not during the Civil War, which seems more typical for this subject, but 20 years earlier, when there wasn't really any question of ending slavery throughout the whole country.

Probably my biggest complaint about the book is twofold: too many unnecessary details, and too many red herrings. Kingman spends way too much time on Anibaddh's silkworms, describing their appearance and how they're raised for pages on end sometimes. Brief background and texture I understand, but it's taken to an extent that makes you think it will end up significant to the plot (which it never really does). Likewise, there are a handful of clues dropped early on that never amount to anything. Have the disgruntled slaves actually been poisoning their employers with castor oil beans? Is the senior MacFarlane really playing bagpipes in his moonlit field just for the heck of it, or is he secretly signaling to someone on the Underground Railroad? The story would still work perfectly well without either plot line, but to have them introduced and then inexplicably abandoned is perplexing.

Still a book I'd recommend, if you enjoy historical fiction set in the 19th century US.

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