Disclaimer: This novel contains graphic assault scenes, abuse, and several other sensitive topics, which may not be suitable for younger audiences. Reader’s discretion is advised.
Rita Williams-Garcia’s latest release, A Sitting in St. James, is a powerful book. Set in the 1860s, the story revolves around the life of the Guilbert family, a financially struggling white family. Through the main plotline of Sylvie Guilbert getting her family portrait painted, the plot also contains the brutal reality of slavery, several different affairs, family drama, and more. There’s no real way to sum this book all up into a neat package, but there are always plotlines to follow and new stories to discover throughout the book. This is a historical fiction text, but it explores an extremely glossed over topic in the United States. There is a ton of research done to portray 1860s Louisiana, and the emphasis Williams-Garcia places on historical accuracy is also really great for learning about the period of time right before the Civil War, particularly, Southern family dynamics. There are so many plot lines I could highlight here, but I think it’s best if you read the book and enjoy the full experience for yourself.
I can't stop talking about A SITTING IN ST JAMES. 15 days and counting! https://t.co/MEI1PimZxx
— Rita Williams-Garcia (@OneCrazyRita) May 10, 2021
Out of the many books I’ve read, I can confidently place this as one of my favorites of all time. First off, I really have to stress the amazing character development and plot layering throughout the book. In a lot of cases, books with multiple plots can be difficult to follow, but every story that Williams-Garcia adds serves its own important purpose in contributing to the plot. The same idea can be applied to her characters, as each character, no matter how minor, ultimately gets their own layered complexities. The way that Williams-Garcia writes is captivating, and she particularly excels when it comes to creating her characters. She doesn’t shy away from the specifics and details, and her characters are so animated that I felt myself getting visibly mad or hurt by each one. One of the highlight characters for me is actually Sylvie Guilbert, the wife of the plantation master. Her character is layered with complexity, as she actually hails from French royalty. In turn, this gives her increased pretentiousness throughout the book, as she comes in with exceedingly high expectations and grand demands (even though the family is actually struggling, financially.) This heritage also makes Sylvie extremely discriminatory, and she prances around with an air of superiority that is absolutely infuriating to read about. Her character illustrates one of the most depressing ideas from the time period, the idea that slavery was justifiable because Black individuals were somehow “lesser than” or an “inferior” type of human being. Just from the way Sylvie treats Thisbe, the young slave girl she took on, you can see that no matter how hard Thisbe tries to please Sylvie, she’ll never be seen as anything more than an object to help Sylvie.
One of the more unique themes that this book explores, then, is the idea of femininity, and how its conceived “innocence” somehow makes up for the horrible realities of slavery. One of the storylines that extends through the book involves a young girl, Jane, who is a bit unruly and “too masculine” to be a true woman. Sylvie decides to teach this girl how to become more feminine, stressing softer movements and trying to shroud femininity in a cloud of innocence. But, it’s impossible to ignore just how corrupt Sylvie actually is. As she tries to train the “monstrous” masculinity out of Jane (which is just basically Jane’s love for horse riding and wearing pants), she simultaneously is able to ignore just how much of a monster she is. The idea of trying to hide behind a delicate facade of femininity was a really interesting one and a perspective I had never considered.
Get here, May/June! Big congrats to @erinentrada @Meg_Medina @justinaireland and all the @HornBook luminaries💫 https://t.co/8OY7ch7Wlg
— Rita Williams-Garcia (@OneCrazyRita) April 12, 2021
I also cannot stress how important the different topics in this novel are. Williams-Garcia writes openly about many sensitive topics, including rape, manipulation, and abuse. She also discusses plenty of social justice issues, ranging from racial injustice to homosexuality. But, each of these topics have their own place in this incredibly layered and dynamic plot, and all of them provide important messages that add to the meaning of her work as a whole. I really appreciated the effort to not shy away from the harsh realities of each topic. Be warned, there are plenty of moments in this book that’ll be uncomfortable realities to acknowledge. I even had to put down the book a few times to just think about what I had just read. This book truly illustrates the brutality during the slavery era in the United States. By not shying away from a single abuse or topic, Williams-Garcia forces us to confront this reality head on. It’s painful, but an incredibly important experience to address. From reading about young children getting whacked, to full on sexual abuse, there are plenty of difficult topics to challenge what we may think slavery was. In classes at school, I was never exposed to any of the true pain that these individuals were subjected to. The mindset that some people had back in the 1800s– that enslaved people were no more than an object or a tool– is an extremely sad one to witness, and through the amazing character development, Williams-Garcia makes their pain our pain. One final topic that I really loved seeing represented in this text was a serious relationship between two men, one that they had to keep hidden from the world. But, I’ll spare you the details so you can enjoy their relationship as much as I did.
There’s no doubt that America, and the world, have a long way to go before achieving racial justice for everyone. This book, though set in a time period from a long while ago, is absolutely still applicable to this day. I definitely encourage everyone to read this book. It’s an impactful, thrilling story with several important messages strung throughout. If you’re looking to educate yourself on the United State’s history of racism, or you’re looking to explore history from a new perspective, this book is a great place to start.
A Sitting in St. James will be released on March 25th, 2020. You can preorder the novel through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or HarperCollins.