An Honest Review by Susan Jarrett
The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd is a fictionalized account of colonial dame Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s early life in the colony of South Carolina during the mid 18th century. Pinckney is credited with developing indigo production as one of the Lowcountry’s most important cash crops. This novel is a “coming of age” tale of Pinckney’s early attempts to establish indigo in America. The cultivation and processing of indigo dye became one of South Carolina’s most profitable commodities before the Revolutionary War.
Synopsis as found on Blackstone Publishing’s website is as follows:
The year is 1739. Eliza Lucas is sixteen years old when her father leaves her in charge of their family’s three plantations in rural South Carolina and then proceeds to bleed the estates dry in pursuit of his military ambitions. Tensions with the British, and with the Spanish in Florida, just a short way down the coast, are rising, and slaves are starting to become restless. Her mother wants nothing more than for their South Carolina endeavor to fail so they can go back to England. Soon her family is in danger of losing everything.
Upon hearing how much the French pay for indigo dye, Eliza believes it’s the key to their salvation. But everyone tells her it’s impossible, and no one will share the secret to making it. Thwarted at nearly every turn, even by her own family, Eliza finds that her only allies are an aging horticulturalist, an older and married gentleman lawyer, and a slave with whom she strikes a dangerous deal: teach her the intricate thousand-year-old secret process of making indigo dye and in return — against the laws of the day — she will teach the slaves to read.
So begins an incredible story of love, dangerous and hidden friendships, ambition, betrayal, and sacrifice.
According to author interviews, Boyd first learned about Eliza Lucas Pinckney at an indigo textile exhibition in South Carolina. Intrigued by Pinckney’s story, Boyd wanted to pen a tale- blending both fact and fiction- to pay homage to Eliza Lucas Pinckney and bring to the attention of popular culture the contributions of this amazing early Colonial American woman.
A pioneer in many ways and a lady far beyond her era, Eliza Lucas was born on a plantation in Antigua in 1722 and moved with her family to South Carolina in 1738. Her father, a Lt. Colonel in the British Army, was also a speculator and had multiple plantations across both the West Indies and South Carolina. Called back to The West Indies, Lt. Colonel Lucas left his daughter Eliza (then aged 16) to manage not only their South Carolina plantation on Wappoo Creek but the family’s two other plantations nearby.
With their West Indies’ plantations failing, the Lucas’s South Carolina plantations needed to be highly profitable. Indigo was a high demand, high profit cash crop. But up to this point, Colonists had been unsuccessful growing it in America. So teenage Eliza Lucas used the skills of enslaved Africans who had grown indigo in the West Indies and West Africa to cultivate it at Wappoo Plantation.
It is true that Eliza Lucas [Pinckney] did teach her slaves to read (which was illegal during this time) and believed education was the key to a more enlightened society. It is also true that Eliza had a very special fondness for one African slave whom she referred to as “someone special” in her letters to her father. However, it is not clear who this individual was or what the true nature of their relationship was either.
A keystone to Boyd’s The Indigo Girl is the relationship between Eliza and her slaves- particularly a fictional slave named Benoit who was her childhood playmate in the West Indies. He is brought to South Carolina by an Indigo trader after her father sold him “to save him.” The story explores the nature of early relationships between black and white, Africans and Europeans, master and slave. It also explores women’s themes making quiet comparisons between the plight of the African slave and the oppression of the 18th century female.
With that said, I do feel the author played it rather safe with this novel. There was an extremely strong story line the author intentionally chose not to pursue. The relationship between Eliza and Benoit was very intriguing and had a great deal of potential. The further exploration of this relationship could have made for a far more compelling read. For example, both characters are driven by a desire for freedom. Both are valuable to their “fathers” only when the land is prosperous. Both are enslaved by the laws of men. Both are rebellious. Both challenge the status quo. But none of these topics are explored in depth. And there is no convergence of these two character’s shared themes. They are just there- like nagging flies that swarm about your head with no resolution. And then the story ends. An ending you might find in a Jane Austen novel….
But we must acknowledge that following the afore mentioned storyline is quite dangerous- especially in the Olde South when you are dealing with founding families and lengthy legacies. And we must understand even though the story is fictionalized, it is indeed based on historical figures/events and thus hemmed in by facts.
The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd is well written and appeals to a broad audience. I recommend it for its account of the tenacious fight to establish indigo in Early America. The best part of this novel is the description of growing and processing Indigo. Quite fantastic!
Overall, The Indigo Girl is a decent read but is a story that could have benefitted from a little more fiction and a bit less facts.
Violence? Not anything memorable.
Sexual Content? No
Head on out and grab your own copy of The Indigo Girl by Natasha Boyd and see what you think about it! Published in 2017 by Blackstone Publishing. Available at your local quality book seller and as an audiobook!
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