This mesmerizing 1993 novel revolves around two nineteenth-century women. An actual historical figure, Mary Ellen Pleasant is a free black woman, a business owner and an abolitionist. A fictional character, Annie Christmas, is a mulatto who walks away from a privileged life in Jamaica to fight slavery. The two women meet in 1858 at a speech by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper on “The Education and the Elevation of the Colored Race” where Annie speaks up against the notion of the Talented Tenth, saying that all people deserve respect. Mary Ellen takes her to dinner at a restaurant named Free Enterprise which becomes the locus of an abolitionist group planning a war of independence to begin the following year.
The only name connected with that war that lives in common memory today is John Brown, so this story becomes a potent reminder of all the people who worked for that cause.
Freedom and its absence are found in many forms. We also meet a white society woman, Alice Hooper, who invites Mary Ellen to a fancy dinner. Alice herself is encased by society's norms, as is her cousin Clover Hooper, who is a photographer. One of the first portrait photographers, Clover is also an historical person, a wealthy socialite from Boston who married Henry Adams and is buried in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. In this story, she and Alice visit Civil War battlefields.
The book actually begins in 1920 when Annie is living alone, deep in the bayou. When she wants company she sneaks into the nearby Carville leper colony where the women convene to share their stories. Annie's closest friend is Rachel DeSouza who is assumed to have leprosy although she has no external symptoms simply because she is a Jew from Suriname. “The Surinamese strain flourished especially among Jews and Maroons.” Rachel tell of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, that symbolic year for Americans. I remember visiting a ruined synagogue in Toledo and thinking about the uprising there and about the consequences of the expulsion, not only for the Spanish Jews but for Spain itself.
The narrative is fractured, moving back and forth in time, sometimes with Annie, sometimes with Mary Ellen or other women. It is like the scrap of patchwork that Annie cherishes. Created by a slave out of bits and pieces snipped on the sly from rich people's clothing, it shows a lion holding a gun. Such a perfect way to tell the story of these two women whose lives have been buried by the “dominant paradigm” of John Brown's revolt, lives that have to be excavated and fitted together piece by piece. I can't remember when I was last so deeply involved in characters in a book. I breathed with these women, listened and walked with them.