In 1791, seven-year-old Lavinia has just arrived to America and finds herself on a Virginia plantation with no memory of her name or her background, nor of how she got there, as she is suffering from the shock of being orphaned on the voyage from Ireland and having witnessed both her parents being buried at sea. The ship’s Captain having decided to take her on as an indentured servant, this is how Lavinia finds herself in the kitchen house, surrounded by black servants who wonder what a little white girl is doing in their midst. Belle, the young woman in charge of the kitchen house is at first dismayed to have to take on this strange skinny girl who keeps throwing up on her because she is unable to keep down her food. Belle is the Captain’s illegitimate daughter and while she knows about her parentage, as do all the other servants, the Captain’s young wife, an opium addict, is unaware of it and hates Belle, whom she believes to be her husband’s mistress, as the Captain does nothing to hide his affection for his daughter. The novel is narrated by both Lavinia and Belle, who take turns telling their versions of the story, which spans from the day of Lavinia’s arrival at the plantation until a time roughly twenty years later which we get a glimpse of in the prologue, set in 1810, which describes Lavinia and her own small daughter making the horrible discovery of a woman hanged from a great oak tree. At the heart of the novel are the ‘Big House’ servants with the matriarch Mama Mae, her husband Papa George and their children, who are in charge of looking after the Captain and his wife Miss Martha, along with their two young children. Unlike the slaves who work in the fields, who are malnourished and harshly treated by the taskmaster, the Big House servants are well fed, live in relative comfort and are respected by the Captain. At the beginning of the story their life seems almost idyllic, and this coupled with the prologue only adds to the impeding sense of doom.
I was deeply satisfied with the plot which describes the progress of Lavinia, Belle, the slaves, the various members of the Pyke family, and the many ways in which their lives are intertwined. I found this book absolutely captivating and could barely put it down from the very beginning. The narration moved swiftly along all the while following Lavinia on her surprising journey to womanhood and through motherhood. The characters are just fleshed out enough so that we understand their motivations and actions and the loyalties between various individuals, but no more, which is probably why I didn’t give a higher rating. I can see why this book was a top-rated selection in 2010 on LibraryThing and would definitely recommend it to anyone.