(Reviewed by Kam Aures FEB 10, 2003)The dust jacket for this debut novel state that, "She brilliantly illuminates the meaning of roots and the links between women and their female ancestors, a tie that often appears tenuous, undefined and distant, but is strong, palpable, and much closer than we imagine." This one sentence does an incredible job of summing up the work.
The story begins in Sierra Leone, West Africa in the year 1749 aboard a slave ship headed for Charleston, North Carolina. We are introduced to a nameless headstrong and rightfully hostile "blue-black" woman who intrigues the captain so that he would like to "have her" for himself. When the captain pays her a visit after dark and moves towards her to rape her, she throws herself on him, biting into his jugular in an attempt to kill him. As he screams crewmembers come to assist and finally get her off of him. The captain understands that her intention was to kill him and then, in turn, to be killed. Not wanting to see her "win" he decides to make sure that she lives. She is bound to the deck and rather than sell her in Charleston he plans to sell her in Santo Domingo where he knows of a trader "who would see that she got her due."
However, a sudden tornado ravishes the ship and takes the lives of all of the crew. Replacement hands are sent out to take over the ship. They find the woman shackled to the deck; the shackles had saved her life. With her past actions unknown to the replacement crew, she is sold in Charleston. Unbeknownst to everyone she is pregnant at the time. And thus, Sapphire is born. She is a tiny little thing at birth and thoughts are that she would not survive. "But survive she did, to grow strong and slender as a reed, blue-black and smoldering with the promise of hellfire in her narrowed eyes." At the age of five, Sapphire is sold away, never to see her mother again.
Sapphire bore four daughters by different fathers. By the time that Sapphire's fourth child is born the Master of the house "decided to fix Sapphire." Because of his actions, "the luxury of human weakness would die for Sapphire. She would be embodied with a hardness and tenacity born of hardship that exceeded the limits of human tolerance. Without understanding the impact of his deeds, the enslaver would create the beginning of a legend." The story then moves to the year 1863 when the announcement is made that the slaves are free. We follow the lives of Sister (the last generation of Sapphire's line who had been born into slavery), Prince (Sister's husband who had succumb to infidelity) and Queen Marie (Prince's mistress). Sister has vivid visions in which she sees the past. It is as if she is a part of the past and living through Sapphire's eyes. She sees the horrors inflicted upon her ancestors some of which included beatings and rapes. Sister feels the strength of love, which Sapphire had for her children and the extreme lengths she would go to assure that no one would be able to abuse them.
The novel progresses through many, many generations up until the year 1995. We travel deep into the lives and experiences of each of the female descendants of Sapphire's line. It is fascinating to follow a family lineage for such a long span of time and to see the choices and decisions which each woman made, and to see how the choices which their parents made affected them. The book goes in depth on a variety of issues including slavery, abuse, rape, prostitution, infidelity, and mixed race relations.
The only thing I feel that is missing in the novel is while we look at the female ancestor's of Sapphire we do not learn a lot about Sapphire's own daughters and the rest of the line leading up to Sister. There is one chapter, which spends a few paragraphs on each of the daughters, and then later on there is a little more. We meet Sapphire in the Prologue in 1749 and then the book starts Chapter One in 1863. It would have been interesting to follow the lives of her daughters and their daughters up until 1863 as we followed the rest of the generations from 1863 to 1995.
Sapphire's Grave by Hilda Gurley-Highgate is a wonderfu novel written in an eloquent prose style. Her writing style and insight is unique. As I said, my only complaint about the novel was that I wished that there were more. This new and talented writer will go far and I eagerly anticipate her next novel.
- Amazon readers rating: from 5 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from Sapphire's Grave at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- Sapphire's Grave (December 2002)
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- Official website for Hilda Gurley-Highgate
- The Grits Book Club interview with Hilda Gurley-Highgate
- Myshelf.com review of Sapphire's Grave
- AALBC.com review of Sapphire's Grave
- Black Issues review of Sapphire's Grave
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About the Author:
Hilda Gurley-Highgate is an attorney in Detroit, Michigan. She is also the chair for the Energy, Environmental & Public Utilites for the NBA.