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22 December 2020 A SITTING IN ST. JAMES by Rita Williams-Garcia, HarperCollins/Quill Tree, May 2021, 480p., ISBN: 978-0-06-236729-7


“It was Byron Guilbert whose steps in life mattered. In spite of his innermost conflicts, Byron would do what was expected of him. He would marry Eugénie Duhon and assume management of Le Petit Cottage so his father could drink bourbon, gamble at racetracks, and read the old poets. Byron would produce heirs, preferably two, as neither his father nor grandfather had much luck in producing white heirs. In time, he would hand off the plantation to the next legal son, or daughter’s husband if it came to that. He found the idea of producing legal heirs amusing. A legal heir, maybe two, would be all that he could muster, as he didn’t share his father’s or grandfather’s lust for Black women or for women of any color, for that matter.”


A SITTING IN ST. JAMES is an expansive, breathtaking, masterwork of historical fiction that cuts to the quick. It’s set on a down-on-its-heels plantation outside New Orleans in 1860, the year before the Civil War began. An 80-year-old matriarch, Sylvie Bernardin de Maret Dacier Guilbert, originally from France, and her ne'er-do-well son, Lucien Guilbert--a truly despicable human being--are in charge. 


This page turner is a story that shows how the white slave owner class did not see slaves as human beings. A slave was an asset to be used or abused as the owners chose. This is epitomized in a stunning passage involving the Guilbert’s slave cook, Lily. She was acquired years earlier as a young person, when Lucien Guilbert took her as payment after a successful card game with his fellow plantation owners. Lily has since matured into a large, powerful woman.


“Guilbert and Pierpont often traveled by barge and traded machinery, and rented each other’s bulls, stallions, and hogs for stud purposes. They could also conduct a profitable husbandry between their two-legged livestock.

Lily wasn’t privy to their gentlemen’s agreement, but the master had planned some entertainment and a long-term capital investment for himself and Arne Pierpont, master of the Pierpont Plantation. When he had the overseer gather Lily up one Saturday night, Hannah feared it was to deliver her to a new home, a new plantation. She thought she had seen her queen, her adopted granddaughter for the last time. Hannah didn’t know Lily would be going down the road and on a barge across the river to Pierpont’s plantation.

Lily got up on the wagon and hugged her belly.

Lucien had brought two bottles of his best bourbon from his reserve to share with Pierpont. He was excited to deliver the big girl.

Arne Pierpont was astounded when he saw the girl. Astonished that for a change, Lucien Guilbert hadn’t exaggerated the girl’s magnificence. Why, she could be rented to a traveling show or circus and make good money, as gawkers wouldn’t be able to look away from her unusually large parts. Pierpont turned and patted the backside of his chosen man, impressively tall and broad, of about twenty, and gave him a few words of encouragement. Master Guilbert was immediately taken by the young Black man’s size. Both men congratulated each other on the size and overall health of the couple. They further congratulated each other on their anticipated profits and agreed to meet ten months from the date to pair the two for the next litter. The gentlemen smoked their cigars, drank bourbon, and shouted instructions, mainly at the young man to ‘Go at her again.’

When the husbandry was finished, Lily was told to stay on her back with her legs up to keep the investors’ seed intact. There was much drunken jubilation between the two planters. They marveled, cackled, poked, and slapped at her as she lay on her back, legs up. When they decided that their investment had been firmly planted in ground, the drunken men, with the help of Pierpont’s man, pushed the girl up and onto the wagon. The gentlemen tipped their hats to each other, and then Lucien and the girl, Lily, were on their way.”


Award-winning author Rita Williams-Garcia, a descendent of slaves, steeped herself in historical research in order to paint a painstakingly accurate picture of life on a fictional plantation. 


A SITTING IN ST. JAMES is written for young adults. Once the time, setting, and family history have been laid out, the story centers on the interactions of a half-dozen well-drawn adolescent characters who come together at the Guilbert plantation in the summer of 1860:


Byron Guilbert is the sole heir to the plantation and to an estate in France that had belonged to Sylvie’s parents. Byron attends West Point and is gay.

Robinson Pearce also attends West Point and is Byron’s secret lover. He ferries down the Mississippi to visit Byron for the latter portion of the summer, before they are due to return to the military academy.

Eugénie Duhon, the daughter of another plantation owner, is Byron’s seventeen year-old fiancée.

Jane Chatham is the unconventional, horse-loving daughter of Sylvie’s longtime friend. This untamed redhead comes to board with the Guilberts this summer when her widowed mother sells their plantation and emigrates to Europe.

Thisbe is an adolescent slave and Sylvie's personal servant. Her principal duties include dressing and bathing Sylvie, wiping her bottom, serving as Sylvie’s snoop, and doing the kneeling when Sylvie recites a rosary.

Rosalie is Byron’s paternal teen sister. Her enslaved mother is owned by the Guilberts. But she's the spitting image of her grandmother SylvieRosalie has spent years boarding at a convent, where she has been well-educated and has learned to tailor clothing at a professional level. Although Rosalie is despised by Sylvie, Lucien nevertheless retrieves his nearly-white-looking daughter this summer, with the hope of marrying her off to the free, mixed-race son of a well-off plantation owner.


This is a thoroughly-engaging YA tale set in a stunning historical novel. I just can't stop thinking about these six teens. A year from now, you’ll see this book listed on any number of “best of” lists.  


A knee on the neck. 8 minutes and 46 seconds. How could those cops so easily murder George Floyd? This is the right book at the right time. If I were an enlightened parent or a high school American history teacher, I’d have my kids read A SITTING IN ST. JAMES. Rita Williams-Garcia exposes that society of slave owners in a way that any teen or adult will better understand the deep, ugly roots that underlie the callous disregard for Black lives that still exists in America today. 


Richie Partington, MLIS

Richie's Picks http://richiespicks.pbworks.com





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