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Book Reviews : 2 Works: Once Upon a Time in Black and White America

August 08, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams (Morrow: $15.95)

In her short preface to "Dessa Rose," Sherley Anne Williams says, "I now know that slavery has eliminated neither heroism nor love." Building on that premise, she has fashioned an uncommonly absorbing novel by juxtaposing a pair of separate but complementary historical events. In an essay by Angela Davis, the author came upon the story of a pregnant black woman who participated in the rebellion of a party of slaves chained together for transportation to the auction block. Captured in Kentucky and sentenced to die for her crime, Dessa Rose was kept alive until her child was born.

In an earlier book about slave revolts by Herbert Aptheker, Williams had read of a young white woman in North Carolina who allowed runaway slaves to hide on her remote plantation in exchange for labor on the land. With nothing in common except the womanhood of the characters, the stories of the condemned slave Dessa Rose and the abandoned wife Ruth Elizabeth Sutton serve to enlarge each other, melding in a novel far exceeding any standard notions of feminist fiction.

Though we first see Dessa Rose in a moment of physical intimacy with Kaine, the father of her child, her bliss lasts only a page. Immediately thereafter, she is a prisoner in a dungeon, being interviewed by the hack writer Adam Nehemiah as she awaits execution. Kaine is already dead; Dessa is living on borrowed time, her terrible plight coldly exploited by Nehemiah for his book on efficient methods for eradicating slave revolts. All but destroyed by starvation and brutality, shackled not only by actual chains but by almost total ignorance of the world, Dessa is nevertheless articulate, her agony expressed in terse, searing images.

Meeting With Rufel

In Williams' version of her story, she is released by surviving members of the original rebel band and brought to the Sutton farm, arriving just as her child is born. Waking after the delivery, she sees her infant being nursed by a white woman, the bizarre sight a symbol and preview of the ensuing narrative.

Nothing in Rufel Sutton's conventional background prepared her for the role in which circumstance has cast her. Deserted by her wastrel husband for increasingly long periods, she's virtually a hermit on the ruined farm, her only companions the few refugee slaves and her own small children. She and the slaves live in a mutually uneasy symbiosis, prisoners of a system that, in 1830, seems not only unalterable but natural. Miss Rufel feeds Dessa's infant because the stark alternative is to let it die. As a result of this extraordinary bond, the two women achieve one of the most intricate and ambivalent relationships in contemporary fiction.

Though the word friend remains unspoken until the end of the book, we're shown the development of their interdependence under the most difficult conditions possible. At the same time that the connection between Rufel and Dessa is deepening, the white woman and one of the slaves become lovers, a bond equally profound and even more shocking in its context.

Rufel's Lover

A natural leader, resourceful and courageous, Rufel's lover, Nathan, persuades her to become the slaves' accomplice in a scheme to sell and resell members of the group until they've collected enough money to escape to the Free States. The unlikely conspirators set off by wagon, Miss Rufel acting the role of a financially distressed plantation owner forced to part with her slaves. As soon as the money is paid, the little band moves on to the next town. After a day or so, the newly sold slave escapes to rejoin his mistress and repeat the trick. Though inevitably questions arise, Miss Rufel is surprisingly adept at evading them, the sanctity of white womanhood operating in her favor.

Their luck holds, our disbelief kept in suspension by the strength of Williams' prose and the power of her faith in the significance of her material. The many implausibilities dissolve in the complexity of the human relationships explored, the sheer fascination of the adventure, and our own desire to see the story end in success, if only just this once.

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