SUMMER COUNTRY by Lauren Willig is a very potent story. It allows readers to transport themselves into the minds of the characters during the 1850s in Barbados.  What Willig does best is to bring a story to life through heartfelt characters.

This engaging tale of Victorian values has love, lies, jealousy, and rebellion. The story is powerful enough but Willig infuses into it a mystery surrounding the Peverills and Beckles sugar plantations. The action shifts back and forth between 1812-1816 and 1854 that includes the moral dilemmas of slavery and how each of the characters reacts. The emphasis is on two cousins: one free, a slave owner, Mary Anne, and the other her slave, Jenny.

The story opens in 1854 when Emily Dawson and her cousin Adam along with his wife Laura travel to Barbados. Emily goes to see the property, Peverills, a sugar plantation she inherited from her grandfather. It is a burnt-out shell, reduced to ruins in 1816, when a rising of enslaved people sent the island up in flames. During the rebellion supposedly a Portuguese girl died when the plantation was burned by the slaves. Nowhere to stay since Peverills is uninhabitable, they accept the invitation of the owner of Beckles sugar plantation, Mrs. Davenant, to stay with her. She has her own hidden agenda that includes trying to match up Emily and her grandson George. But Emily is not interested since she has an attraction to a prominent medical doctor, Nathaniel Braithwaite, an Afro-Caribbean, who began life as a slave at the Beckles plantation.

Rewind to 1812 where Charles Davenant has inherited Peverills, much to the chagrin of his younger brother, Robert. Charles tries to mollify Robert by encouraging him to court Mary Anne, heiress to Beckles, because he only has eyes for the enslaved mixed-race maid/slave, Jenny.

This historical novel and mystery has lies, greed, clandestine love, and heartbreaking betrayal. Through the exploration of slavery readers take a journey with the passionate characters.

Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for the novel?

Lauren Willig:  The catalyst for the story was when I took a Caribbean plantation tour about ten years ago.  We were told how the plantation burned down and the Portuguese ward of the owner died in the fire.  But it turns out she was neither Portuguese nor his ward, but a child of a slave/owner.  He only called her Portuguese to explain her darker skin and to make her European.  I started to wonder where is the mother in this story and why weren’t the children and mother freed? What was the relationship between the slave owner and the slave?

EC:  Did you base Charles, a slave owner, who had an affair with the slave Jenny, on Thomas Jefferson?

LW:  I actually based him on Joshua Steele, a Barbados plantation owner.  He had a relationship with a slave woman who bore him two children.  Steele could not free her because he did not own her.  After he died he left his fortune to the two children, but the courts ruled property could not own property.  They were disinherited.

EC:  What about the relationship between Charles and Jenny was that based on anyone?

LW:  I read articles on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings and had so many questions.  Can he call her his mistress when she was a slave woman?  Was their relationship based on affection when she had no choice in the matter?  Could they ever actually be in love?  How do you take away the coercion element? After reading the book Natural Rebels: A Social History of Enslaved Women in Barbados by Hilary Beckles I realized that these relationships ran the gamut.  Some had general affection while some slaves used it to free themselves and their offspring by bearing children to white men. 

EC:  Charles seems a lot like Thomas Jefferson?

LW:  They are one of the same mind.  They had the high ordeals yet were so deeply entrenched in the system of slavery.  They cannot figure out how to extricate themselves.  In Barbados there was a huge tax that had to paid by anyone who freed a slave.  Unfortunately Charles did not have the cash to free his own slaves because the fees were deliberately punitively high.

EC:  How would you describe Charles?

LW:  A dreamer with high ideals.  He is an incredibly principled person who is fundamentally ineffectual.  His ideas are not practical.  He embodies the Enlightenment paradox that had high minded notions but no idea how to implement them.  Beautiful words on a page without any action.

EC:  How would you describe Jenny?

LW:  Very practical.  She saw Charles as honest and high minded but realizes she must be self-contained.  Jenny protects herself by observing and watching.  I think she is much stronger than Charles. 

EC:  How would you describe Mary Anne?

LW:  A survivalist because she suffered through a gruesome upbringing where she was always in fear for her life.  Whatever she had the potential to be became warped by that upbringing. We must look at her within the context of the times since she grew up as a slave owner.  Her morals are entirely different than ours.  I consider her a tragic character.

EC:  How would you describe the relationship with Jenny?

LW:  Jenny and her are cousins and in any other world they would have grown up together and would have been friends.  Because Jenny is a slave their relationships are mistress and slave.  Jenny is closest to her than anyone in the world.  As much as Mary Anne is capable of loving anyone she loves Jenny.  Yet she is acutely aware Jenny is her possession and expects absolute loyalty.  She does not know how to encourage Jenny to love her without commanding it.  She looks on Jenny as her sister and her slave. She confides in Jenny and relies on her. 

EC:  Mary Anne has trouble with relationships including her husband Robert?

LW:  Their marriage is a very old model which was about property and security.  Their relationship is poisoned from the beginning because of the Uncle’s statements. Robert had the younger son syndrome that causes his bitterness.  He deeply resents that his money and status came from marrying Mary Anne.  He tries to make her insignificant, but she pushes back.  She is resentful because she regards the plantation as hers along with the money.  They clashed because Robert felt he had to be in charge and she is not the meek wife. 

EC:  What about Emily and Nathaniel’s relationship?

LW:  She helps him to solve problems, something she is very good at.  She is good at getting things done. She understands that Nathaniel feels he must prove himself because of the color of his skin.

EC:  Was the 1816 rebellion real?

LW:  Yes. Since the slave owners allowed the slaves to leave the plantation without a pass from the owner they could meet and discuss what needed to be done. All the characters Jenny meets are real people.  Everything in the book was drawn from the historical record including the dialogue. The owners thought if they kept the slave population as pacified as possible, they would be happy, but this also gave the slaves an opportunity to plan.

EC:  Heads up about your next book(s)?

LW:  It is a story based on the memoir of a woman who wrote about her time in France during WWI.  She organized eighteen of the Smith college alums to go to France in 1917 and offer humanitarian aid.  There will be three main characters including a sparky British soldier.

The other book is written with Karen White and Beatriz Williams.  It is set in France at the Ritz during WWI, WWII, and in the 1960s with three generations of women.