REVIEW: ‘A Sitting in St. James’ by Rita Williams-Garcia tackles a piece of U.S. history that must not be forgotten


‘A Sitting in St. James’ asks, “what are you without racism?”

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The topic of racism has always been explored in literature. In A Sitting in St. James, Rita Williams-Garcia dives deeper into where the root of racism began by creating a story centered around life on a plantation in the 1860s.

From the Blurb:

An unmissable tour de force from three-time National Book Award finalist and Coretta Scott King Award–winning author Rita Williams-Garcia, who memorably tells the stories of one white family and the enslaved people who work for them. Essential reading for teens and adults who are grappling with our country’s history of racism.

This astonishing novel about the interwoven lives of those bound to a plantation in antebellum America is an epic masterwork — empathetic, brutal, and entirely human.

1860, Louisiana. After serving as mistress of Le Petit Cottage for more than six decades, Madame Sylvie Guilbert has decided, in spite of her family’s indifference, to sit for a portrait.

But there are other important stories to be told on the Guilbert plantation. Stories that span generations, from the big house to out in the fields, of routine horrors, secrets buried as deep as the family fortune, and the tangled bonds of descendants and enslaved.

In her author note, Williams-Garcia tells a story of how she was on a panel where a boy asked the question, “why do they hate us?” — meaning why do white people hate Black people? Williams-Garcia then replied to his question with, “when they see us, they don’t see human beings”. This conversation was what prompted Williams-Garcia to explore the beginning of racism and to tell a story about slavery.

Williams-Garcia also goes on to tell the reader why she wanted this story to be centered around a white family. She says the Black characters can’t speak on the reasons why slavery was seen as a necessity because they didn’t create their enslavement. So she turned to the other characters who lived on this plantation. The matriarch, her son, and her grandson.

Le Petite Cottage is a struggling plantation with dark secrets. Madame Sylvie Guilbert is an 80-year-old matriarch who feels like the world owes her for the harsh life that she’s lived. She’s the product of the French royal court following the aftermath of the French Revolution. She wasn’t given many choices as to where her life would lead next so she got married at a young age to a plantation owner. She’s held on to the privilege and entitlement she had as a child and this plays a major role in who she is now.

Lucien Guilbert is the son of Madame Sylvie Guilbert and he spends most of his time desperately trying to save the plantation from all of its debt. His son, Byron, is a West Point cadet who is the heir of Le Petite Cottage. This family has ugly and painful pasts that were hard to read about at times.

This book honestly took me a while to get through because the lives this family lived were horrific. They are all painted as villains and monsters yet we see a glimpse of what makes them human, too. Williams-Garcia is an astounding author. I felt so many emotions while reading this story and I’m left pondering it days after I finished. She poured so much of her heart into answering that young boy’s question of “why do they hate us?” The research and history of telling this story right are prominent in each word she wrote.

The Guilbert family saw Black people as property and a “thing” they were owed.

The most prominent relationship in this story was between Madame Sylvie Guilbert and her servant, Thisbe. The matriarch took her from her family as a “gift” to herself. She quickly named Thisbe after Marie Antoinette’s prized pet dog. Thisbe was meant to be an extension of her body. Their relationship showcased how Madame Sylvie Guilbert saw Thisbe as non-human. She was her “pet” and would even call to Thisbe as one.

There are many more aspects of this book that I could talk about but I think I’ll leave the rest for the reader to discover on their own. It’s truly a mesmerizing story and an important one. A Sitting in St. James is sure to be spoken about years from now and hopefully recommended to all readers who wish to understand the root of racism better.

The target audience for this book is ages 15 and older. I would definitely recommend it to readers of that age because there are a lot of triggering topics discussed such as abuse, murder, and rape.

A brutal look into slavery

"And she is the reader who browses the shelf and looks for new worlds but finds herself." - I'm a writer who enjoys telling you all about the things I love, which includes a lot of books!

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