A Sitting in St. James is one of those books that as you read, you know you are part of something special. The epic work exposes how deep the self-deception of white plantation owners goes, exposing the roots of the racism that is the haunting specter over the American notion of freedom.
It’s powerful. It’s important. It’s a masterpiece. And, it’s a page-turner extraordinaire.
But, don’t be fooled into thinking that the actual story has been abandoned in an effort to illuminate the notion that these whites believed that the people they enslaved weren’t truly humans. In A Sitting in St. James, the story is paramount and is beautifully rendered with an honest brushstroke that reveals so much more than the scene being painted.
Madame Sylvie Guilbert is the defacto dowager queen of Le Petit Cottage, and she’s decided it’s high time she’s had her portrait painted, despite the fact that the Guilbert plantation is failing and there is little money to spare. But Madame doesn’t like to examine reality too closely, preferring to perpetuate the notion that she is a victim who deserves to have all she wants to make up for her life of suffering. Sylvie has had her trials. She was brought to Louisiana as the teenage bride of a man who had wanted to marry her mother and practically kidnapped Sylvie to fulfill his distorted fantasy, all but two of her children died before they drew a breath, and her only daughter survived little more than a decade before being taken by illness.
One might think that Madame Guilbert’s experiences would make her compassionate toward her enslaved handmaid Thisbe, who she named after a royal dog. But though Thisbe feeds her, bathes her, wipes her after she uses the chamber pot, and sleeps at the foot of her bed, Sylvie Guibert doesn’t have the capacity to see that she tore this girl from her family and abuses her just as she was torn from her own life and treated unkindly.
The cruelty in her lack of empathy is startling and that is where Williams-Garcia shines her light while Madame Guilbert traipses along in the dark, oblivious and full of self-pity and righteous indignation.
Williams-Garcia’s tale is replete with complex and character-revealing storylines that pull you into their ebb and flow while never making you feel like this is a teaching moment – although the truth is always there, as indelible as the tide. There is Lucien, Madame’s only living child, who is trying to save the plantation’s future by marrying his bi-racial daughter – who is still enslaved, by the way – to the freed bi-racial son of another plantation owner because that son has developed brilliant systems to improve plantation yields.
That’s not the only mind-breaking tangled web between the plantation owners and the enslaved. There’s also Byron, Lucien’s son, who is gay but needs to marry for the good of the Guilbert plantation. Never mind that his father secretly murdered the enslaved boy whose company Byron enjoyed when the two were young. All the unpleasantries are swept under the proverbial rug, and life goes on. No one stops to think. They just do what has been done before. Keep the traditions, play the game.
A game that is deadly for the enslaved people of the Guilbert plantation.
Oh, but how the STORY draws you in! You might think you would not want to read such a story, but I promise you, YOU DO! It is heart-rendingly beautiful and has that special energy future classics always do. Read it. Share it. Talk about it. And, most importantly, join me when I host a live chat with Rita Williams-Garcia about her amazing work on Tuesday, May 25 from 6-7 pm EST. If you like our page and click to join the event, you’ll automatically be reminded when we start streaming. Can’t wait!
Rita Williams-Garcia is the author of eleven novels for children and teens, including One Crazy Summer, which was a Newberry Honor Book, a winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award, a National Book Award finalist, and the recipient of the Scott O’Dell Award.