In 1850, Jonathan Thomas, a young, personable, and aristocratic Southern gentleman, has returned to his antebellum home from an Ivy League school in the North. His father is dying and Jonathan is sole heir to the family’s lavish, prosperous, and renowned Rainbow Plantation. While up North, two major revelations had seriously shaken his self-image. His exposure to Northern abolitionism had permanently shaken his outlook on slavery, the South’s “peculiar institution.” Worse, he had begun to believe he might be a sodomite, a most wretched creature reviled by the customs of nineteenth-century American society
Review by Erastes
The book begins in a familiar fashion, the heir to the estate returns – upon his father’s death – from travels abroad and mixing with people in North America. I was expecting him to storm in, disgusted with the owning of other humans, so I was pleasantly surprised when he didn’t.
BTW – I didn’t know whether his name “Jonathan Thomas” was a deliberate joke or whether it was one of those sad accidents and that a John Thomas doesn’t mean the same in America as it does in the UK, but it did make me laugh.
He is conflicted, but he’s a lot to be conflicted about–his homosexuality, and his desire to repress it and have a “normal” life, the pressure on him to marry and continue his family’s line, his relationship with his father, his missing (presumed dead) sister, and his attraction to, not only a man, but a “sub-human” – Kumi, a handsome black slave he used to play with when they were both young boys. I was impressed with this being brought up. Jonathan isn’t a “crusader” (thankfully) and when he does begin to realise that his way of life is wrong, he makes a decision that seems very real – and broke my heart, too!
The book covers a lot of issues, and I think that’s part of my problem with it, it tries to do too much in not enough space. With a book that wants to cover this breadth of topics it really needed to be at least twice as long because much was glossed over and not given enough time to develop. The pace seems breathtaking and I found myself going “hang on, his mother’s dying and he’s doing this?” or “shouldn’t he be mourning?” and (in the case of the love story) “What!? they’ve not said two words to each other!”
On that point, the love story is one point that doesn’t convince. We are told that Jon loves Kumi but we aren’t shown it. Other than a couple of stilted conversations and an short voyeuristic sex scene, there’s nothing in the book (and there was the opportunity) to show the development of the relationship. I think readers will feel cheated at this lack, and annoyed that so many other issues stepped in the way, and because of this, the ending left me a little baffled.
Editing wise, the self-publishing leaves a lot to be desired, but this could be dealt with if (and I’d like to see this happen) a publisher were to take it on–there are two new publishers concentrating on “writers of colour” and this would be a good addition, dealing with a subject many would find uncomfortable.
It sounds like I didn’t enjoy the book, and that’s not true – I did. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know about the era, I loved the “shock” that comes towards the end and I learned a few new words (sockdolager being one.) It’s clear that Sheeley has done the research necessary. I would recommend it to anyone interested in this time of history. It’s just a shame that the little flaws let it down.