review: A Sitting In St. James

title: A Sitting in St. James
author: Rita Williams-Garcia
date: Quill Tree Books; 2021
main character: Thisbe
Black American historical fiction

Madame Sylvie Guilbert was cornered into a marriage that resulted in her giving up her land in France for her life in Louisiana. Her decades as mistress of Le Petit Cottage are to be finalized when she sits for a portrait. Her grandson has come home from West Point, and of course no one knows that the cadet who has joined him is actually his lover from the academy. Her granddaughter, one of several sired by Madame’s son with an enslaved women on their plantation, is also home from school. And, she’s taken in Jane after promising her mother that she could make a lady of Jane. Le Petit Cottage has a full house as Wiilliams-Garcia unrolls secrets of the families connected to this land.

At its core, this is a book about enslavement as it was enacted in Louisiana and it’s a story framed in Whiteness. But Williams-Garcia, an award winning African American author couldn’t stop there. She writes of Blacks who manage to carve out a sense of agency that is recognized by both Whites and Blacks, but there’s also a very intricate sense of agency that develops among the Black characters.

None of them, Black or White, seem able to escape their own trauma. Essentially, that’s what slavery did to this country; to stain it with the trauma of enslavement. Here, Williams-Garcia details the trauma that each of her people faces. I could not help but see the bondage in which many of the White characters found themselves. This reminded me of Dr. Donald Grant’s work that examines the trauma that oppressors face through the lies of supremacy and colonialism that they ingest.

Dr. Sarah Dahlen Park and I recently led an online discussion of this book and comments made there are certainly influencing this review. For example, in this multigenerational novel with numerous characters, I came to realize that Thisbe is the main character. She is developed in a way that most other characters are not, and readers are often provided insights into situations through her. She is also the character who develops through the book. And, I believe it is this girl who justifies this as a YA novel. Sure, it was released YA, by a YA publisher but the majority of situations are adult. I think the way Thisbe goes unheard and unseen is something teen readers will relate to. Little crumbs are dropped to feed young reader’s desire for action but, in this story the rich writing, the layering of situations and characters and the attention to detail is what drives the reader’s imagination. Williams-Garcia tells them, “Patience. There is no story without history.” (p. vii)

I really appreciate the complexity of this story; slavery my friends is complex. I like the research that distinguishes Louisiana culture from the fairytale plantations we’ve come to know. I like the details that relate the social hierarchy within White society as well as within Black society and the reconfiguration of those ways of being when the races interacted. I expected more Native American representation but, the opening was the ceremonial land acknowledgement we’ve come to expect when we gather. There will be things we find to squabble about, stray details in the 450+ page book but, there will be a full array of emotions that signify just how good this book is.

We talked about book pairings in our discussion the other day. I immediately thought about Freedom in Congo Square (Bonnier; 2016). This picture book is complex in its simplicity and it centers the lives of those who were enslaved in Louisiana. I think it could make a good introduction to the book, particularly for those who know little about enslavement. I would also pair this with Angel of Greenwood (Feiwel & Friends; 2021). I keep remembering the line in that book, ““Rest within unrest. It is impossible.” (p.2) If Blacks in the United States are not at peace, neither are Whites; and vice versa. I think also of Angel and of Thisbe and how these Black women silently carry the burden of oppression even when all around them is falling apart.

I suggest you read this one before award season because it will be a top contender. In fact, it just won the 2021 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry.