Our Own Country by Jodi Daynard

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This wasn’t a very good book, but, whilst reading it, I got into an interesting discussion about whether or not historical fiction should reflect the prevailing attitudes of the time and demographics that it’s about, given that there are always going to be people who feel differently. In this book, Eliza, a white woman living in Massachussetts at the time of the American Revolution becomes romantically involved with a mixed-race slave, they have a child together, and the relatives and friends with whom she’s living at the time are absolutely fine about it. My initial reaction was that the book was unrealistic – but, whilst it seems unlikely that that’s the reaction she’d have got, it *could* have happened.

Having said which, it really wasn’t a great book. That was a shame, because it sounded great. It’s rare for books to explore the experiences of slaves during the American War of Independence, or even to make the point about what a horrific paradox it was to speak about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when millions of people across what became the United States remained enslaved.  That’s usually left for books set during the Civil War – and it’s sometimes hard not to feel that writers are glossing over the fact that slavery existed north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as south of it.  But we heard very little from the point of view of John, Eliza’s boyfriend, or from Cassie, the family cook to whom Eliza was very close, so the message never really came across.

It was pretty much all told from the viewpoint of Eliza herself, a young woman from a well-to-do family living in the colony of Massachusetts. Her brother was pro-independence, her father was a Loyalist. That again sounded like an interesting idea, showing how families were divided by the conflict, but, again, it didn’t really work – the brother moved away, and was later killed in action, and we didn’t really get to see the family discussing its members’ different viewpoints.

Nor did it help that the author had tried to be true to the time period by writing all the dialogue in what was presumably meant to be 18th century speech patterns, but sounded artificial.  Also, all Cassie’s speech was written in broken English.  I’m sure the author meant well, but I felt quite uncomfortable about it.

John and Abigail Adams featured quite prominently, as friends of Eliza’s sister-in-law, and there were some interesting observations about the privations which resulted from the war.  And a spy story, which I think probably made more sense if you’d read the book to which this is a sequel, which I hadn’t!

Overall, a good idea, but not very well executed.  And it ended with Eliza and John living happily ever after in Barbados, which I didn’t really get – did the author think that society in Georgian Barbados wouldn’t have had any problem with a white woman being married to a mixed-race man?  I wish I could say it wouldn’t have, but surely we all accept that it would.

So is it OK for historical fiction to show a relationship that flew in the face of societal norms of the time, be that because of class, race, religion, gender, one party being married to someone else, or anything else, without really showing the problems that the couple would have faced?  I’m not convinced that it is.  It’s not inaccurate as such, because it could have happened.  And lots of things happen in books which aren’t very realistic, so it’s not really fair to criticise an author for being unrealistic.   But it doesn’t really work for me.  But, hey, maybe that’s just me!

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