Review of A Sitting in St. James

A Sitting in St. James
by Rita Williams-Garcia
High School    Quill Tree/HarperCollins    480 pp.    g
5/21    978-0-06-236729-7    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-06-236732-7    $10.99

Williams-Garcia, whose YA titles include the 1995 classic Like Sisters on the Homefront and Jumped (rev. 3/09), offers an unusual angle on the subject of slavery with this sobering depiction of life on a nearly bankrupt sugar plantation in Louisiana just prior to the Civil War. Here the lives of the white Guilbert family members and their enslaved “holdings” are intimately interwoven in a series of threads that span generations and reveal the social and political boundaries within which the intriguing cast of characters exist and survive. The eighty-year-old Guilbert matriarch, Madame Sylvie, insists on sitting for a portrait the family can’t afford in her efforts to retain a connection to the past. Her son and nemesis Lucien, the manager of the plantation, desperately schemes to avoid foreclosure. His son, essentially engaged to the daughter of a wealthy planter, is in love with a fellow West Point cadet. A family friend spends the summer because her mother hopes the Guilberts will cure her of her unconventional and unladylike ways. Among the enslaved young people on the plantation who are subjected to cruelty as an everyday way of life are Madame Sylvie’s personal servant Thisbe and Lucien’s “quadroon” daughter Rosalie, who is ostracized by her grandmother but viewed by her father as the family’s ticket to solvency. In this sweeping, richly researched, and powerfully delivered tale of privilege and exploitation — often a difficult read — Williams-Garcia’s storytelling is magnificent; her voice honest and authentic. Appended with an author’s note and a bibliography.

From the May/June 2021 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Pauletta Brown Bracy
Pauletta Brown Bracy is professor of library science at North Carolina Central University. She is chair of the 2015-2017 Coretta Scott King Book Awards committee and serves on the 2017 Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards committee.

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