The group was split on this one. Some were engrossed by vivid writing, strong characters and the tragic setting. They were inspired by the story of sisters from a “good family,” transformed into political radicals, and the tragedy of the one who survived.
Others were disappointed to find such rich material – location, subject matter, plot – falling so flat for them. A few mentioned the Hussein’s “The Kite Runner,” saying they found his writing much more compelling. CD and BT both called Alvarez’ book boring.
JW and HF disagreed, feeling that Alvarez succeeded in writing a book that is “not, after all, a historical document, but a way to travel through the human heart.”
This book was a surprise! Several book club members didn’t expect to enjoy reading a legal history book they’d never heard of by an author unknown to them. Many of those same members ended up staying up very late at night to finish what turned out to be a real page-turner.
The characters of the ambitious Yankee lawyer, the cantankerous blind judge, the imperious slave owner, the determined German immigrants and the mysterious Sally/Salome drew us all in. The city of New Orleans itself in all its antebellum wildness came to life: the circus atmosphere of the wharves, swarming with goods and people from all over the world and all levels of society; performances of high opera as well as shows featuring dogs, bears, bulls and tigers matched in bloody fights to the death; the Quadroon balls at the doors of which men checked their bowie-knives and revolvers as casually as they checked their coats.
If the detailed picture of life in New Orleans in the early 1800s fascinated everyone, many confessed to skimming over the legal details. Even so, Bailey never lost anyone for long, skillfully drawing us into the complex, foreign yet familiar situation.
CD wanted Bailey to spell out more clearly the horrors of the legal and social system serving as the context for his story. As Bailey’s editor, CD would have asked him to be more pointed, more clearly articulating the insanity of a legal system that protected the rights of some residents to own others as if they were nothing but property, based on clearly arbitrary “racial” distinctions.
No one in our group was very concerned about the liberties Bailey took in creating conversations, scenes and character’s states of mind – Bailey states up front that he uses these techniques, and we were glad he used them so effectively alongside all of the historical documents he did have available.
Not everyone agreed with Bailey’s conclusions about Sally’s true identity – JS didn’t want the author’s opinion; CD didn’t care what the author thought. In any case, the truth of Sally’s origins is something no one will ever know for certain.