The Wedding Gift
written by Marlen Suyapa Bodden
published by St. Martin’s Press
About the book: Told from the alternating perspectives of a young slave girl and the wife of an abusive plantation owner, THE WEDDING GIFT (St. Martin’s Press; September 24, 2013) is a brilliant exposé on the evil of human bondage, a heartbreaking exploration of what-might-have-been and a meticulously researched historical tale of courage, escape and redemption.
Sarah is the daughter of a tyrannical plantation owner, Cornelius Allen, and his slave concubine, Emmeline. We meet Sarah at a pivotal time in her young life when she is beginning to understand the implications of her situation on the plantation and is also beginning to notice undeniable physical similarities between herself and Clarissa, the white daughter of Allen and his wife. The complicated, strained and emotionally fraught relationship between the two young girls grows through the years until it dramatically culminates when Allen gives Sarah to Clarissa as a wedding gift upon her marriage to an influential Southern gentleman.
The Wedding Gift is ultimately a story about complicated bonds and compelling female relationships that will appeal to readers of The Help and The Secret Life of Bees. The final pages will surprise you and leave you breathless.
The slaves’ burial ground was not a cemetery such as those one sees nowadays; it was simply open, rough land where nothing but weeds grew. We could only tell where the graves were located by the wooden crosses atop mounds of soil. We were the only ones there that day, and we dug in different places trying to find my grandmother’s coffin, which, my mother said, had a carved rose, my grandmother’s favorite flower. We never found a coffin with a rose. Belle and I did not cry until we found a clump of hair, that we reburied because my mother said if that was all that remained of a person, even if we did not know whose hair it was, the Lord would want us to honor it as if it were the person’s body. We said a prayer and thanked the Lord for our lives after we placed the wooden cross on top of the soil over where we buried that clump of hair.
My mother held Belle and me as we returned to Allen Hall. The sadness I felt after I learned how Mr. Allen’s father treated my grandparents and our other kin in life and death made me fearful whenever our mother left Belle and me in our cabin at night. It also made me believe, for the first time, that if I asked my mother, she would agree we should leave the Allen plantation.
That year, when I was about six years old, I watched Mrs. Allen and Clarissa when they were together. When Clarissa sat on her mother’s lap or embraced her, I was envious because my mother worked the entire day and most nights she was away from our cabin. I missed her when she was not with us and could not sleep until she returned, always before dawn. The mornings after she left, when her eyes met mine, she seemed ashamed, and that made me miserable.
Once, when we were having our breakfast, she seemed preoccupied. I tickled her under her chin, which normally made her laugh. This time, however, she barely smiled. I asked her why she was so sad.
“I’m just tired, is all, baby. Just tired.”
I asked her why we could not go where she would not have to work so hard, and she spoke to me in a fierce voice.
“Don’t you ever, ever talk about that again, and you listen to me good. Just talking like that can get us sold. You know what it mean to be sold? It mean they send us to different places, and we ain’t never going to see each other again. Maybe you think just because Mrs. Allen let you play with Miss Clarissa all the time that you’re just like her, but you ain’t nothing like Miss Clarissa. She can say what she want. You got to watch every thing you say. And don’t you forget, we is all we got.”
I wanted my mother to stop going away; I was afraid that she would not come back. One night, I held onto her.
“Don’t go, Mama, don’t go.”
She smoothed my hair.
“Say you won’t go, Mama. Say you won’t go.”
“Sarah, I got to, baby.”
I do not remember how many weeks elapsed before she finally tired of my attempts to prevent her from leaving.
“Belle’s right here with you. Come on, Sarah, stop it.”
She handed me over to Belle, who folded me in her long arms. I gave my mother a foul look. “I hate you, I hate you. Go, and I don’t care if you never come back.”
She sat on the bed and cried. I buried my face in the pillow. After some time, I heard her walk across the cabin floor and close the door behind her.
The battle between us continued, but I learned to wound her with silent reproach. One evening, after our prayers, I asked her why she had to leave us.
“Sarah, you too young for me to say what I’m about to tell you, but you need to hear it. You and Belle is smart girls. I been blessed that way. I was hoping to have this talk with you when you was grown. But in this life, we got to be older than our real years.
“I’m going to tell you something that you can’t repeat to nobody, not even Miss Clarissa. You’re going to have to promise me before I tell you.”
About the author: Dr. Marlen Suyapa Bodden is a lawyer at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, the nation’s oldest and largest legal services organization. She has more than two decades’ experience representing poor people and low-wage and immigrant workers, many of whom are severely underpaid, if paid at all.
She drew on her knowledge of modern and historical slavery, human trafficking, and human rights abuses to write The Wedding Gift, her first novel.
On May 20, 2012, the University of Rhode Island conferred on Marlen an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. Marlen is a graduate of New York University School of Law and Tufts University.
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