In my biased view, Linda Spalding had an exciting plot to work with: Quaker settlers head to Virginia to set up house and farm and have to reconcile their beliefs with slavery, greed and “American” individualism. All the trappings of a terrific plot: cold winters, butter churns, trading pigs with neighbours and miserable wives. And gosh darn’it but those settlers make the most of their tired (but well loved by me) plot line: they struggle, they suffer loses, they compromise, they prosper. Oh sure, the compromises are meant to be fraught and compelling: how does the Quaker father make sense of his sons enlisting? or buying slaves? or his daughter engaging in sex out of wedlock?
But because We Don’t Care At All About the Characters it’s hard to care about these apparent moral/plot crises. We’re meant – I think – to be horrified that Mary continues to enslave Bett when she’s bound, by faith and promise, to free her. But I don’t know anything about Mary – what does she like? why does she fall in love with Wiley? what makes her happy? sad? – and so her decision is just as believable to me as if she had carried Bett to freedom herself (which, by the way, she ends up doing – with no apparent change in character to make sense of this radical shift). Instead the novel makes heavy handed declarations like “this (moment) (bird on the window) (breakfast of porridge) changed everything for Mary” and then suddenly she’s off doing something entirely different. I can’t even say something “out of character” because I don’t know anything about her character. And then! The father, Daniel, I only know to do the exact, predictable thing his character is set up to do. So if the characters aren’t entirely opaque they are entirely wooden. Blerg.
I may be belabouring my argument now, but let me just say again that the potential of this plot – and there is potential! – is all but lost in the mire of terrible character development. Too bad.