The day before Thanksgiving I picked up the books I’d ordered at my local library. I wanted to be sure there were plenty of choices at home since the library would be closed for two days. I found my stash on the “hold” shelf where I recognized the first two books but had no recollection why I’d ordered the third, nor even a clue as to the subject of the thin novel.
“Property” by Valerie Martin turned out to be a compelling, if shocking, read. The story revolves around Manon Gaudet, a pretty young woman who’s made a bad bargain in her choice of husbands. Now she’s stuck on a lonely plantation outside New Orleans with a boorish spouse who flaunts his bastard child by his mistress, Sarah, his wife’s slave and the property she brought to the marriage.
There’s cholera and yellow fever in the city; threats and murmurings of slave uprisings in the countryside; family secrets and confused memories at home. And running like razorwire thoughout is Manon’s petulant monologue.
The late Carol Shields, in a cover blurb, calls Manon “as complex and disaffected as Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s ‘The Awakening.’” Complex, yes; disaffected, certainly. Manon is, after all, mistress of the plantation and yet property herself, given the marital laws of the day.
But this is no story of a woman’s awakening. It is a look inside relationships that are as dark and twisted as the institution of slavery. I couldn't warm to Manon but I had an equally hard time connecting with Sarah. Perhaps because slaves had to disguise their thoughts and monitor their actions to merely make it through the day, Sarah was always a shadow to me.
Martin calls her tale a meditation on “the fantastic and constant perversity of the oppressor to feel victimized by the oppressed;” making that point for contemporary readers is the strength of the book. It was, perhaps, not the most obvious choice for Thanksgiving reading. And yet it proved a proper meditation for the day — and for the month in which an African American was elected president.
INTERNATIONAL SLAVERY MUSEUM/used without permission