I’m now working my way through Willa Cather’s less famous novels, and I have to say, I’m disappointed the ones I’ve been reading are less famous than they could be. The Song of the Lark, O Pioneers!, and Death Comes for the Archbishop are all very deservedly famous, but after reading Sapphira and the Slave Girl, I hope that more of her works can receive greater prominence. She’s an excellent writer and she takes her readers to a bunch of backgrounds throughout the course of North American history.
Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert is an antebellum heiress in 1850s Virginia. She is married to a man “beneath” her station in life, Henry Colbert, a simple miller. They lead a companionable and comfortable life and they agree on most things, except for one: slaves. Sapphira is a slaveowner who inherits her family slaves and brings them with her to Back Creek, where she and Henry establish their home. Her daughter, Rachel, becomes an abolitionist and sets up a life in Washington, D.C., only to return after a family tragedy. Sapphira’s most prized slave is Nancy, a young bi-racial woman known for her hard work, good physique, and beauty. The determination and strong wills of these three women collide until a crisis threatens to undo the equilibrium of the family.
In depicting what it was like to be a young black woman in the South, Cather raises some intense ethical questions about owning another human being and taking someone’s identity, agency, and dignity away for having a certain color of skin. I’m honestly surprised this book does not get taught more, since it focuses on the attitudes of slave owners, abolitionists, and African-Americans themselves who were enslaved and free. It was an eye-opening read, and one I’d definitely recommend.