Today is the release day for Roseanna White’s most recent stand-alone novel, Dreams of Savannah, set in the South during the Civil War. I’m going to say upfront that, while I enjoyed the book, I recognize that this is a tricky subject and therefore feel it is necessary to start out with a few disclaimers.
*This is a very surface-level review based on my overall enjoyment of the book. I acknowledge that there are MANY problematic things about writing a book set in the Civil War. My review does not attempt to dive too deeply into those reasons.
*I am coming to this book from the perspective of a white, middle class(ish?) woman. Others with different backgrounds may have different (and valid) responses to this book, based on their experience and knowledge. While the author did some consultation with some close author friends who are people of color, I feel like this book is still geared more towards my demographic. If you have read, or plan to read this book and have a different response to it, please tell me about it in the comments. One of the themes of this book is listening to other people’s stories, learning from them, and letting them shape your worldview. I welcome your perspective and would love to engage in a respectful dialogue with you.
*There is some minor defense of the Confederate South (“States Rights” and “Defending our home” are mentioned a couple of times, etc.), However, I feel that the main purpose of this book is to address people of privilege living in a system that favors them to the detriment of others and challenge them to do their part in bringing about justice, rather than waiting for the system to be fixed.
What I loved:
Cordelia was a fun character. She was kind, compassionate, and imaginative. I loved how she turned everything into a story, and I loved the fact that she examined her biases and took the time to educate herself once she was made aware of them, and the moments when she took a stand.
She and Phin had good chemistry and completed each other well, though I feel their relationship could have used more development (more on that in a minute).
Luther was a fabulous character! LOVED him! He was strong, he battled his feelings, he showed grace but did not hold back or glaze over the truth for the purpose of making Phin feel comfortable. I really appreciated that. Salina was also a wonderful, strong character. She had every right to feel resentful of Delia but chose love instead. I wish we could have heard even more of her voice.
While we got to know both Phin and Delia very well, their individual development was great, and they had really good chemistry when they were together…much of their relationship takes place off-page. They don’t go through any of these changes together, and it’s near the end of the book before they both know they’re on the same page over the issue of slavery. When they were together they didn’t talk about what was happening in their lives that was changing their outlook on life. I wish we had been able to see more of their relationship at the beginning of the book, and maybe some of their letters.
I think it would have also been helpful to see Phin’s character and interaction with his slaves at the beginning of the book before he met Luther so we could appreciate his change a bit more.
The Civil War books I have read on the past fall into two camps: 1. The South is a villain camp 2. Humanizing the south while glossing over the issue of slavery (yeah, slavery was bad, but…*cue defense of slavery or slave owners*) camp.
As the spectrum goes, this book would fall more towards the middle. It does humanize the people of the South, but it ALSO deals with the issue of slavery. It is probably the first book I’ve read that includes an awakening of the slave owners to the evil of slavery. It has a clear anti-racism/anti-slavery message, while acknowledging the complexities of the day. There a challenge (albeit, subtle) to the reader to examine our own biases.
Overall, it was a very good read. This is a difficult topic to navigate, especially when writing fiction. What I think this book does well is that it does not dwell overly much on defending or villainizing the South. Instead it addresses people living in a broken system and asks them to do their part in bringing about justice.
I received an advanced copy for the purpose of reviewing. All opinions are my own.
“We need happy stories in the midst of trials. They keep us going. Remind us of what we’re struggling for.”
“Happy endings aren’t real. They’re just moments isolated in time. After one crisis, before the next comes….They are pauses we all need. Those moments of beauty we can look back on, take strength from, when we’re in the valley of shadows again.”
“She made the impossible seem worthy of hope.”
“It’s not that she doesn’t see the tragedy – she just chooses which stories to tell.”
“If helping Salina gain freedom meant forfeiting most of her own – so be it. If that was the price she had to pay to avoid being a villain in anyone else’s story, then she would pay it most gladly.”
“The world was so twisted. So shadowed. Like a book that had gone down the wrong path chapters and chapters ago, because rather than go back and fix the mistake, the author had just kept on following it, darting down new rabbit trails until they ended up here.”