Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Dessa Rose (Williams) 447


I didn't know anything at all about Dessa Rose, which I think was why I probably ordered it from Awesome books a few months ago - it was on the VMC list and I had never heard of it. I wondered if it was an undiscovered gem or something which just didn't get talked about because it is not very interesting. I think the book falls into the first category, although I didn't find it very easy to read. I've since seen a number of reviews which compared this book to some of Toni Morrison's works, such as Beloved, and I would agree with that - I mention it here because I know that a number of readers of this blog are fans of hers.

The novel is apparently inspired by two real events as the author's note explains:

A pregnant black woman helped to lead an uprising on a coffle (a group of slaves chained together and herded, usually to market) in 1829 in Kentucky. Caught and convicted, she was sentenced to death; her hanging, however, was delayed until after the birth of her baby. In North Carolina in 1830, a white woman living on an isolated farm was reported to have given sanctuary to runaway slaves. I read of the first incident in Angela Davis' seminal essay, "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves" (The Black Scholar, December 1971). In Tracking Davis to her source in Herbert Aptheker's American Negro Slave Revolts (New York, 1947), I discovered the second incident. How sad, I thought then, that these two women never met.

And this novel brings them together. It opens with Dessa, the pregnant slave who is waiting for her baby to be born so that she can be hung. I found one scene where she and other slaves join in singing negro spirituals together intensely moving; the very real sorrow at being trapped into this situation. In the second part of the book Dessa escapes, with the help of some other slaves, to Miss Rufel's plantation. Miss Rufel is a white woman, who harbours escaped slaves, but not wholly out of kindness. She has been left by her husband, and most of her slaves left too; she can only stay on the plantation with the help of slaves, and they stay because they have relative freedom.

It's a fascinating read, although the way it is told is not straightforward, mainly because Williams goes very far to try and subvert the usual way in which slaves, black people, white people, women are usually depicted.

It's just been published once by Virago in a green-spine only form/modern green edition.

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