Not the story you think

Yellow Crocus Laila Ibrahim

On the surface this is a book about slavery and the small steps that America took to move from that horrendous nightmare.  When I read it in that way I was kind of disappointed.  There are many better books about that time focussing on the relationships between slaves and the slave masters.  That’s probably why she went the self published route.  This isn’t The Help.

Yet, a better of understanding of Laila Ibrahim and how she came to tell this story reveals a slightly different story than I first suspected.

Ms Ibrahims’ bio documents her interest in child development and in particular Attachment Theory.  I only have the most basic appreciation of this developmental psychological model.  Exploring such a relationship between a privileged white girl and a family slave gave the author the chance to explore the potential for the long term impact on the child.  As Elizabeth grows she understands that she has never had the prime place in Mattie’s heart, that is reserved for Samuel.

Reflecting on the story of this relationship I can see that the impact of waiting for Mattie to abandon her must have taken its toll on Elizabeth.  It made me wonder about her broken engagement – of course the brutal rape is the catalyst but did she too easily accept marrying someone she didn’t love?  Did that reflect that her prime relationship as an infant was one where she was loved but not with the unconditional love that comes from a parent rather than a slave?  A relationship she knew by looking around her, would not remain the same as an adult.  Did she not feel she was worthy of more or was it purely the social norms?  Or did the attachment to someone in such a subservient position encourage her intial subservience?

The author’s interest in this area is evident in the scene where Elizabeth’s birth mother attempts to breast feed her son perhaps because she can see the relationship between Mattie and Elizabeth is so strong.  You want her to succeed because you want her to be the mother she could be, but she can’t.

Clearly, the author wants reader to question whether such a relationship with a slave has Elizabeth questioning the norms of her time or is it purely her fiancé’s behaviour?  But I wondered to what degree did her attachment to Mattie blind her to what really should have been obvious – such as her half sister?  Whilst she knew the surface issues of slavery, did she not open her eyes to the brutality because it would raise issues that she couldn’t easily deal with?  She knew she couldn’t fight for Mattie, indeed what did Mattie really truly feel about her as a representative of a race who treated Mattie and her family as cattle?

There are some other strong themes in the book about the role of women, power and social norms.  Whilst I enjoyed, the read more so thinking about the impact of Elizabeth and Mattie’s connection I thought overall the novel was weaker than I liked.  The characterisation wasn’t as strong as I like and I found the ending a little too convenient.  I do question whether the family would have allowed such a strong connection between Elizabeth and Mattie to continue unchecked only by her pregnancy.


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