Fireburn by Apple Gidley (RR)
I wrote about Fireburn, an uprising in colonial era St. Croix, in my She’s Royal series (spotlighting especially rebellion leader Queen Mary). So I had some knowledge of the 1878 event that ended in bloodshed.
This book does not center Fireburn (the uprising); rather Fireburn (the uprising) serves as the backdrop for the arc of a story that sees a white/European woman of the landed class returning to 19th century St. Croix, in the then still (the sale of the Virgin islands to the US wasn’t until early 20th century) Danish West Indies; re-acclimatizing, adjusting to various changes and challenges in her life (including one particularly brutal domestic violence episode), and finally find her happily ever after (of a sorts). It’s a romance, a Caribbean historical romance to be sure, with all the complexities of race and class that comes with that, but a romance nonetheless, or some hybrid of romance and women’s fiction (showing main character Anna’s journey of a woman trying to find her footing in a man’s world). But this uprising of the Black oppressed, formerly enslaved, class is really the backdrop to her troubles and that was not what I expected when I saw the cover that evoked Fireburn (the book).
The author (who has previously guest blogged on Wadadli Pen that the fiction must fit the fact, about writing historical fiction especially when you’re writing a culture not your own) is herself a white expat, which is relevant given the subject matter and the subjects – the story being set on a plantation populated by creole speaking Black Crucians.
It’s clear the author did her research (e.g. re the intricacies of plantation life in that time) and I learned some things (bamboula is a kind of cultural dance in St. Croix; in Antigua it’s a kind of cultural food) but there are things about the world of the Black laboring class that don’t feel natural to me. I can’t say the creole (or dialect as we would say in Antigua) is wrong because Virgin Islanders and Antiguans have different accents, syntax, semantics, all that; only that it’s throwing me off and my ears never quite got tuned to it – and I’m not sure if it’s me or the author’s expression of the creole.
The bigger issue though is the handling of the simmering resentment the underclass rightfully have at still being bound by the contract act that followed emancipation and robbed them of agency. I am familiar with the concept of the contract act as it existed here as well – see my writings on To Shoot Hard Labour. In the book, the tensions build to contract day, the only day the Black ‘former’ enslaved people can leave one job for another – but at Anna’s Fancy, there is little fear that they will leave when the little window of choice opens up, because she’s not like the other white people. Yes, there is a bit of sarcasm in my tone at this trope. And I like Anna well enough and she is well intentioned and it’s hard not to like somebody who means well but it’s also hard not to see her blind spots.
A very small example of this early on is how her love of night swimming completely alters the routine of Sam, of the Black/formerly enslaved underclass, her childhood friend (now the foreman or bomba, demoted and re-appointed throughout the course of the story). When she starts night swimming, this from Sam, “in future, he would have to cut through the mangroves to the other bay if he wanted a night-time swim. The beach was no longer just his.” Of course not, and of course, they cannot share it, and of course he has to surrender his own place and routine instinctively, and of course Anna is oblivious because that’s the privilege of not really having to think about it even for Anna who does think about other people (including her workers). Later, re night-swimming, it is noted, “her anxiety about someone seeing her had eased. No one ever came.” I wonder if I am imagining the overlapping commentary on her vulnerability because of her gender, and privilege because of her class and skin. And of course the note re the character’s isolation in this place she has decided to plant her flag.
Either way, in those tensions, Anna makes for an interesting character – if one who feels slightly out of time. Not quite a Mary Sue, but some of her sensibilities (with respect to gender and race and class) seem post-19th century; a bit unlikely though not implausible because, of course, there have always been forward thinking women.
In some ways, she plays her role – e.g. succumbing to the inadvisable advisable marriage – but can be frustrating (and perhaps this is her major flaw) in her insistence on being right rather than being smart, sometimes to the detriment of the people over whom she has power.
I sound like I don’t like Anna but I don’t not like Anna – she is eager to learn (though some of her questioning in the earlies could be delayed for less busy times -“Many questions, maam”) and industrious and hardworking (as much as one who has most of the tedious details of her life taken care of by others can be) and consultative (I’m thinking here of her nightly meetings with Sam even if she doesn’t always listen to his advice…which is fine…she is the boss…but his advice is sound…but she is the boss…but…). And like other exceptional women of colonial times (e.g. the Hart sisters, free Black women who were both slave owners and ameliorists) she was concerned with social uplift projects like education. So Anna as a character not only makes sense, but has her engaging qualities, even if sometimes frustrating to me as a reader, and almost always out of step with those around her.
Okay, I should talk about some of those around her. Not her husband, the less said about him the better. He quickly becomes the villain of the piece. Ivy, though, her maid brought from Europe, is a character you root for – yes, she has her prejudices but they are natural to her experiences (and lack of experience of Black people) and not pinned to who she is as a person. So she outgrows them and is never mean for being mean’s sake, just sort of clueless. One interesting thing is that it is Ivy who struggles more than Anna with the weakening social barriers between them – it is something to watch her overcome all of her conditioning to find a kinship first with Anna and then more naturally with Emmeline, the local woman who commands the kitchen. Emmeline is herself very conscious of place and stations (understanding the dangers of crossing the lines, especially for Black people in a world where they could still be beaten or killed with impunity), and very protective of her world, of which her mistress (Anna) becomes a part despite their rough start.
And there is Sam whom I really like and for whom I feel such anxiety as something develops between him and Anna; perhaps like Emmeline, I can’t see it ending well, can’t see a way for it to work that doesn’t endanger him. There’s a point in the reading where I am 100 percent sure I don’t want this relationship (which is not a good thing in a romance) but then as I sit with him more as he sits with himself and his feelings, I can’t help wanting good things for him – I’m just not sure that this can be it. You’ll have to read to see how that turns out. The writer does resolve it – ah kinda how.
Clearly I came to care about if not always for the characters but I really did not like the framing of Fireburn – it came across more as an inconvenience to point-of-view characters like Anna, and even Sam and Emmeline, and a quickly dispensed with plot point. I especially did not like how Queen Mary was introduced as “that woman Mary, the one who had been jailed for a short time for hurting one of her children” – and that swipe (from Emmeline’s point of view) of women inflaming men’s passions “not only for sex, but for revenge too”. The suggestion (via Sam) that alcohol was what got the mob (and, as written, they did come off like a mob’s) blood up, not injustice, not centuries of oppression that continued post-Emancipation; that chafed. The roving mobs felt a bit like the packs of Black people in Black Hawk Down, rabid and without direction or discretion, just hungry for blood. We were meant to be afraid (via Anna, Ivy, and the others hunkering down as if waiting out a hurricane, something else they do at a point in the story) of what this mob would do (with reason, as the narrative shows how ugly and violent it gets). However, it gives no real perspective of the reason for the violence nor suggests any real understanding as to what moved the people to rise up. Even with the scenes that night – the danger Sam faced on the road, Emmeline sitting up worrying – being quite well and tensely written, that was disappointing (especially as this could have been achieved through characters like Sam and even Anna, having established her disdain for the way things are).
All of the above said, will I read the sequel, Transfer, which includes some of the younger characters from Fireburn (Anna’s adopted mixed race son Niels, for instance). Yes. I want to. Good thing the author sent me that one as well.