The Wedding Gift by Marlen Suyapa Bodden
When the jacket of a book has glowing comments by the likes of Tom Wolfe and Henry Louis Gates and was a national best seller when it was self published, you expect a very good story and with The Wedding Gift that is exactly what you get!
Making the horrors of slavery real and accessible is not always easy in fiction, but Bodden does it with the story of two sisters, Sarah Campbell who is a black slave, and Clarissa Allen who is the white daughter of her sister’s master. The girls are tied together as companions in childhood and as maid and mistress in adulthood. The story is told in alternating chapters through the voices of Sarah Campbell and Theodora Allen, the wife of the Sarah and Clarissa father Cornelius Allen. Another significant character is Belle, Sarah’s mother and Cornelius’s reluctant concubine.
From childhood Sarah has a difficult time understanding and accepting the conditions of the slavery that she was born into and, when she does understand, has trouble abiding by them. It is her enduring hope throughout the book to be able to “run” and have a life of freedom. Bodden does an excellent job of weaving what it means to be a slave throughout the story .
Theodora Allen, the other narrator, has been a much cherished and educated daughter who is married by arrangement to Cornelius Allen who at first appears a caring and kind husband. However, as Theodora has occasion to find out, he is not to be crossed and has a violent temper that results in physical harm to her. She is also devastated to find out about her husband’s on going sexual relationship with Belle. In her way she rebels by secretly teaching Sarah to read as she instructs her own daughter, thereby giving Sarah a tool that eventually will help win her freedom.
When Clarissa marries, Sarah is given to her as her maid. SPOILER ALERT: The marriage is not a happy one due to the birth of a child that was not fathered by her husband. Clarissa dies as a result of a fever and Sarah takes the opportunity to finally run. Her journey to eventual freedom takes her to British Honduras and a very respectable marriage.
I found this book compelling throughout and I wholeheartedly recommend it. Bodden’s characters were so real, especially Sarah and Theodora, and the plot believable and captivating. Some revelations made by Sarah at the end of the book (literally on the last page) were wonderfully surprising! One does not always like surprises at the end of the book but I found myself saying, “Way to go, Sarah!”
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