Monday, March 14, 2022

An Incredible YA Historical Novel

I finished reading A Sitting in St. James by Rita Williams-Garcia a week or two ago. Williams-Garcia is the author of a number of books for young people, but the one I'm familiar with is One Crazy Summer, which I described as "fantastic." A Sitting in St. James and One Crazy Summer are very different, though. One Crazy Summer is middle grade historical fiction set in California in 1968. A Sitting in St. James is YA historical fiction set in the antebellum south with mature content and a sophisticated writing style that never lets the reader go. One Crazy Summer I recall including humor. A Sitting in St. James has some dry humor but at a couple of points while reading it early on I remember thinking, This is a horror story. Though it's the kind of horror that's real. 

As I said, A Sitting in St. James is YA, and it does involve three main YA characters, one the son of the owner of a down-at-the-heels plantation, one his enslaved, and acknowledged, half sister, and one the slave who serves the plantation's elderly matriarch. How they will live their lives, either within the family/plantation or by separating from it, is a classic YA situation. 

However, there are two adult characters in this book who have an impact on all around them, and they are hugely important. Sylvie, the elderly wife of the original plantation owner, is obsessed with her past in France, when she knew the royal family. Her son, Lucien, is pretty much a monster. And, yet, what an amazing character. A monsterish character,

Some interesting points:

  • No one is happy here, slave owner or slave. You'd think that the horrible things Sylvie and Lucien do would support lives that give them satisfaction, because, otherwise, why do them? But, no, they are both miserable. Which, perhaps, may be the point. They're miserable and spread the misery.
  • The attitude of the white characters toward the black goes beyond thought or logic. It just is. A gay character, whose life would be ruined if he's found out, might be expected to feel some compassion for others who live under repression. Nope. Doesn't have a clue. The lovely young  woman who is just a beacon of goodness knows how to put a black woman in her place and does so.
  • White children grow up with their fathers' black children. They're aware they are half-siblings and grow up as half-siblings. They think nothing of the fact that their half-siblings are slaves and they're not. Or that their fathers cheated on their mothers. Or that their fathers, in all likelihood, raped their half-siblings' mothers. 
  • Williams-Garcia shifts point of view in this book, without the cliched YA device of making different chapters from different points of view with the POV character's name on the first page to make sure everyone understands what's happening. This is something that I haven't seen a lot of in the last few decades, and I thought it was even discouraged in the publishing world. It works very well here. (Everina Maxwell does it in Winter's Orbit, too. Striking to have seen it twice recently in such different books.)
Williams-Garcia has created an incredible, justifiably disturbing world in which she tells a mesmerizing story about a plantation family's downfall and its impact on the next generation. The Guilbert family crashes not because of the Civil War foreshadowed in A Sitting in St. James, but because of who they are.

This should be a terrific crossover book for adult readers.

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