TW: racism, racial stereotypes and slurs, exploitation of slavery, violence against slaves, including slave children, white savior trope, non-con/rape, race fail, Stockholm Syndrome, PTSD, etc etc etc.
I read this because of the discussion that is centered around this book on Goodreads. I felt it necessary in order to fully engage in that discussion, as I didn't want to be stuck saying "I haven't read it but so-and-so said." I'm not going to go into all the details about why this book is so offensive or why the MMRG's reaction to the controversy was so disheartening. Several others have already done that. Just a few can be found here, or here, or here or here. There is a group discussion here about this book that I urge everyone to read. Instead, I'm going to focus on the story structure itself in order to try to explain why this is the most unbelievable book I've ever read.
This entire story is, at best, an extremely misplaced and watered down version of the "Boy From the Wrong Side of the Tracks" trope, set not in contemporary America where it would at least make some sense, but set in the American south just before the Civil War. At worst, this is epic race fail, seeing history through the filter of white privilege tinted-glasses, and an overly simplistic view of the times that created the atrocity that was the American slave trade. I found an article on slavery on Wikipedia that I think the author must've used as her jumping off point, and then failed to do any other research about what that time period was actually like for the slaves who had to live through it. There were attempts, I'll give her that much, but... look, let's just get to it, shall we?
First, this book expects us to be believe that Henry, the son of a slave-owner on a plantation in Louisiana, reached the tender age of 5 without ever once hearing the n-word until a black boy (Joseph) wandered (yes, wandered) into his room and called himself by that word. We're then expected to believe that the very first instance of violence against slaves this fragile 5-year old witnessed was when a slave woman comes into the room, finds Joseph in there - eating cake that Henry offered to share - and told Joseph to go find himself a switch. Yes. The first instance of oppression and violence against slaves Henry witnesses is enacted by the slaves themselves. Forget that there's no way in hell Joseph would leave his mother's side to go roaming around the Big House at will so this innocent introduction (the cake eating) of our MCs can happen in the first place. Forget that Henry grew up on this planation surrounded by slaves, his bigoted father and hired men, and that he can see what goes on in the cotton fields just by looking out any window in the house, and that he'd already be learning some rather bigoted views of those slaves. Forget also that the n-word wasn't the controversy it is today and people said it all the time and didn't consider it a bad word to shield a child's ears from. Forget also that the more commonly used word was "Negro" (not that that's any better than the n-word mind you, but it does make me wonder why the n-word was used exclusively). This entire scenario of how Henry and Joseph met and became "friends" is ridiculous.
Second, we're expected to believe that Joseph and Henry would sneak off to play in the woods and one of the slaves (Old Val) was instrumental in helping them to do this. Val just wants them all to be happy. (Val's behavior later on in the book stretches believability even more.) We're also supposed to believe that the other slaves who we meet are so comfortable in their surroundings that they blithely tell Henry what to do, where to sit, tell him he's silly, etc. Yeah. That's not how it worked.
Third, we're expected to believe that a man who would willfully and hatefully beat a woman and her toddler over grief of his own daughter's passing, and then sold the mother so she would never see her children again, would for some reason stop the beating when Henry woke up. This indicates that his father is aware that his behavior is wrong, and his father is not aware of this. His father considers his slaves chattel, property. He feels justified in treating them this way and wouldn't think twice about it just because Henry's there. It felt like the narrative wanted the reader to believe this was an isolated event. That the events similar to this that Joseph remembers from the previous plantation where he lived couldn't possibly happen here. That's why Henry later on believes that Joseph is somehow supposed to be safer on his planation than the one Joseph was leased to for a couple of months while Henry was out of town. That's why Henry is later so astounded that his father ordered Joseph to be whipped. Because Henry's that sheltered and that naive and, frankly, that blinded to the ways of the world in which he grew up. We're also expected to sympathize with this horrible father later in the book when he bursts into tears over his shattered life.
Fourth, we're expected to believe that Joseph is happy with his life so long as he has Henry as a friend. There are a few scant and insufficient attempts to address the psychological damage of being raised a slave, but they were not enough to convince me the author gave it any real thought. Where is the examination of PTSD? Of Stockholm Syndrome, since that's clearly what is happening here? No, instead, they're portrayed as ordinary boys just being regular old friends, so that when the "romance" comes in later, we won't have to stop and think if Joseph is actually saying yes because he wants to say yes or if he's saying yes because of a lifetime of oppression that trained him to say yes to anything any white person demanded of him. (I skipped all those sex scenes as I just couldn't stomach them at all.)
Fifth, we're expected to believe the oh so convenient Hallmark ending when Henry finds out he's actually the owner of the plantation and all those slaves, removes his father from power, decides to pay his slaves (because that'll make everything better), and then selfishly takes off to France with Joseph and his sister so they don't have to deal with the very war that'll ensure the freedom of all slaves, not just Henry's most favorite ones. But hey, he did thank a couple of them for a job well done, so that clearly makes up for a lifetime of enslavement. And we're expected to believe that Joseph and his sister just agree to take off without once at least mentioning finding their mother. Nope, she's forgotten along with all the others. But our MCs are together in France, free to live together (even though this is still mid-1800s and being gay is still totally illegal), so happy ending?
Anyway, I'm sure I'm already forgetting a thousand and one others reasons why this book is so unbelievable. The violence was there only for sensationalism and not to be a real examination of the atrocity faced by slaves. All their problems are solved by a boat ride over the ocean. How convenient.
You know what's even more depressing? Out of the hundreds of stories written for the Don't Read in the Closet event in the last three years, only 29 of them are tagged as interracial. And one of them was this one. Another was about an unprofessional cop who was the epitome of the Angry Black Man stereotype. That doesn't leave much in the way of potential positive representation of POC.