Two sisters, born three months apart on the same Alabama plantation, could not have more different lives. As the daughter of a slave, Sarah is Master Allen’s property; as the legitimate Mrs. Allen’s youngest child, Clarissa is a pampered young lady of means. Playmates as children, Sarah is eventually given to Clarissa’s new household as her personal servant when Clarissa marries an older widower. What is clearly a financial arrangement of convenience threatens the future of the entire Allen estate.
Told in chapters narrated by Sarah and Mrs. Theodora Allen, both women reveal a pre-Civil War society that allowed few freedoms for women, regardless of their skin tones. Being a slave is surely the most heinous existence: when Sarah’s mother Emmeline refuses Master Allen after years of nightly service, he sells Sarah’s older sister to a faraway plantation where she is inhumanely tortured. Theodora arrives on the plantation as a hopeful young wife, and while her privileged status provides lavish creature comforts, she remains a victim of the Master’s violent whims and debaucheries, just as their daughter Clarissa is, in effect, ‘sold’ to the highest bidder.
According to the press release accompanying the galley, first-time author Marlen Suyapa Bodden – who works as an attorney with The Legal Aid Society in NYC – based her novel “on a true court case in Alabama in the 1800′s.” Although the novel’s official publication date is scheduled for later this month, Gift is already a national bestseller, thanks to a 2011 self-published debut that put 150,000 copies into circulation. I might also add that with an African American author, Gift seems rare among recent bestsellers featuring African American narratives: Tara Conklin’s The House Girl, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks were all written by non-African Americans.
As Gift returns to shelves now backed by a major publisher (St. Martin’s Press, part of the vast Macmillan network), it’s also available to stick in your ears, narrated by January LaVoy, who embodies Sarah’s character with determination and authority, and Jenna Lamia, whose flighty youthful voice is surely an example of unfortunate casting. Lamia might have been an ideal choice to personify Clarissa had the chapters been thus written, but her narration lacks any solemnity as the long-suffering Theodora.
That said, even at 10.5 hours, the audible narrative moves more swiftly than on the page; Lamia aside (Sarah’s chapters, thankfully, outnumber Theodora’s), Gift just sounds better than it reads. In silent print, the dialogue, especially, is predictable and stilted, but add a bit of breathily modulated southern accent and such judgment is easily eclipsed. [Could Oprah or Tyler Perry be thinking celluloid?]
With the weather cooling, grab your headset and let the miles fly by with this historic saga of two ill-fated sisters – who needs enemies when you’ve got your own family to wreak such ruinous destruction?
Published: 2011, 2013