Posts Tagged ‘Willa Cather’

sapphira and the slave girl willa catherSapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather ~ 1940. This edition: Knopf, 1940. Hardcover. 295 pages.

My rating: 7.5/10

This book passed the ultimate reading test last weekend. I picked it up while browsing the treasure trove of vintage books at the very recently opened (a year or so ago) Pulp Fiction Coffee House & Robbie’s Rare Books right downtown on Pandosy Street in Kelowna, British Columbia. I settled down with Sapphira and an excellent coffee mocha, and then I read and read and read. The place was busy; the conversation levels loud; I was a at tiny, tippy, table-for-one and it wasn’t exactly what one would consider prime reading conditions, but it didn’t matter. The story won out.

When Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert first moved out to Back Creek Valley with her score of slaves, she was not warmly received.  In that out-of-the-way, thinly settled district between Winchester and Romney, not a single family had ever owned more than four or five negroes.  This was due partly to poverty–the people were very poor.  Much of the land was still wild forest, and lumber was so plentiful that it brought no price at all.  The settlers who had come over from Pennsylvania did not believe in slavery, and they owned no negroes.  Mrs. Colbert had gradually reduced her force of slaves, selling them back into Loudoun County, whither they were glad to return.

Sapphira Colbert is now in her late fifties, and she and her husband Henry Colbert have lived in Back Creek Valley for thirty years. Between them they have built up a modestly successful business in a notoriously poor region; Henry is the flour miller. Sapphira herself is of modestly aristocratic stock; her mother was born in England, and Sapphira’s family heirlooms furnishing her house and her own finicky attention to “proper” speech and deportment set her apart from most of her neighbours. For the last five years Sapphira has been wheelchair bound; she suffers from dropsy and suffers even more from the loss of her physical freedom, though she still rules her household and keeps a keen eye on the mill and Henry’s doings there.

And Sapphira has recently not liked what she is seeing. One of her most-favoured slaves is pretty and intelligent Nancy, the half-white daughter of Till and granddaughter of Jezebel; the third generation of a family line owned by the Dodderidge family. Sapphira has made something of a pet of Nancy, keeping her as a personal servant and giving her trinkets and pretty clothes, but recently she has turned on the bemused girl, lashing out at her verbally and physically. Nancy has no idea why her beloved mistress has turned against her, but everyone else on the place has an opinion on the matter.

Nancy has been in the habit of cleaning Henry Colbert’s bedroom over at the mill – Henry and Sapphira lead very separate lives, and no longer share their marriage bed – and has started bringing Henry small nosegays of flowers, which she leaves in his room. The two have recently been seen in earnest conversation, and Sapphira, viewing Nancy’s lushly blossoming adolescent figure with a cynical eye, suspects that her husband and her slave girl are up to something even more intimate in the hours of the night.

She is mistaken, though. The relationship between Nancy and Henry is innocent through and through. Henry views Nancy as a pure young girl, and himself as her paternal protector. It has never crossed his mind to look at her in a sexual way, and she herself is  vehemently virginal, shuddering at the thought of sex with anyone, least of all her fatherly patron.

Henry is a noble character, of a sternly righteous Lutheran heritage; the thought of slave ownership is anathema to him, and only his vast respect for his wife has made it possible for him to keep quiet about what he sees as a fundamentally wrong practice. It is pre-Civil War Virginia, though, and marriage laws are such that Sapphira is unable to sell her property – including her slaves – without her husband’s permission. She has made her intention of selling Nancy clear to Henry, and he has categorically refused to allow such a thing, believing that Sapphira owes her slaves a permanent benevolent protection, adding fuel to the fire of Sapphira’s suspicion. So Nancy continues to receive sharp words and sharp cuffs, while Sapphira muses on other ways to revenge herself on her two supposed betrayers.

How Sapphira plots her revenge, and how Nancy is able at last to escape her wrath is the storyline which runs through the book, though there is a lot more going on here too, and numerous cleverly drawn characters besides the three key players.

Willa Cather tells her story in a spare, clean style, mincing no words whatsoever. As a matter of fact, the frequent colloquial language made me wonder rather why this novel has not suffered the same criticism as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has recently received; Sapphira, her compatriots and the narrator herself have no problem with calling anyone a “yellow girl” (for the half-white Nancy) or a “darkie”; “nigger” is an everyday expression and is used abundantly throughout.

Perhaps it is the overall theme, a critique of the practice of slave ownership, and an ongoing discussion of moral obligations, which has made it less of an issue? Or maybe the book is just that much more obscure that publicity has so far escaped it. In any event, it is there, and slightly shocking to a modern day reader; I did find myself glancing around to see if anyone was reading over my shoulder, and I angled the book to prevent a casual glance from catching the potentially offending words.

An excellent read, which kept me engaged even through the increasing melodrama, and Nancy’s continual jittering vapours. Sapphira as the key antagonist is cold and calculating, and we are very cognizant of her manipulative ways, but we are also given a chance to see behind the façade, to glimpse her fears and insecurities and internal conflicts, as well as those of every other major character.

In Sapphira and the Slave Girl, Willa Cather lives up to her reputation as a brilliant writer and a keen observer of American culture and personal history.

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