This is the fourth Benjamin January novel in the series about the doctor/piano player who lives in New Orleans in the 1830s as a Free Man of Color. This is perhaps, so far, one of her most serious and dangerous books in the series. January has just been recently robbed and is in need of money, but that is not what ultimately makes him take on this job for the policeman Shaw. January's former master, Simon Fourchet is having trouble on his sugar cane plantation, Mon Triomphe. The slave's food has been poisoned, a butler murdered when he snuck a drink of Fourchet's liquor, and another slave killed in a fire in the mill. There are voodoo marks everywhere and Fourchet believes there is the possibility of a slave revolt, but he is not entirely convinced and wants to hire January to uncover the truth.
After some convincing by his sister and Rose, he reluctantly agrees, mainly because there is a good chance that if something is not done, the slaves will be punished severely for this. There had been a revolt in 1798 on Fourchet's family plantation, but most of the slaves were caught and killed. So January leaves behind his Parisian French for the African patois of a field hand (there are many different dialects of French in the area). He pretends to be his violin player friend Hannibal's personal slave. Hannibal, who suffers from consumption, is invited to stay on Fourchet's plantation when his health takes a turn for the worse. January, who was too young to work in the cane fields before being freed by his mother's lover, still remembers how things work on one, and is placed in the fields since they do not have enough hands. It is hard work and January's tender, piano playing hands are soon blistered and bleeding and he is aching all over from working from sunup until dark. It will take a while for him to recover and be able to play again at the winter balls, if he can survive this at all.
He makes friends and begins to find out information about the slaves, such as the relationship between Quashie and Jeanette, who is being forced to have sex with the evil overseer, who has it in for Quashie and blames him for anything that goes wrong on the plantation by having him severely whipped, as when the sugar cane knives go missing and are mostly destroyed. On the plantation, women are given, in a sort of marriage, to male slaves in order to get more work out of them. Kikki, for instance, is first given to Reuben, until she lets Madam Marie-Noel Fourchet, a sixteen-year-old cousin of the Doubrey's who own a large piece of land and have a complicated history and are upset at her for marrying Fourchet, who now has a chance of owning her father's plantation, Refuge, lets her marry Gilles, the murdered butler. She is Fourchet's third wife, the other two having died. The first gave birth to his eldest son, Robert, who was away in Paris with his annoying wife and children when the trouble first began. The second son, Esteban, is the only surviving child of his mother. The others were believed to have been killed by the slave nanny. Robert makes many overtures toward his step-mother and seems to have feelings for her that it appears she does not share.
Mohammad, the old blacksmith, provides January with information, including the whereabouts of the slaves when the various incidents occur. It is indeed a true puzzle because it appears that a slave or former slave is causing the trouble. But why? Or maybe it is one of Fourchet's many enemies, which include Trader Jones who trades illegal items to slaves and others and is hated by everyone up and down the river.
January has Hannibal return to New Orleans and talk to Shaw about looking into Fourchet's will and his son's activities in New Orleans. He is only supposes to gone a day, but when a couple of days pass, January becomes quite worried. He has a signal he places on a post visible to the ships passing for Shaw to know that he is ok. He places a different colored neckerchief for each day of the week. When two slave cabins catch fire along with some other buildings, Fourchet is affected in a minor way by the smoke and needs to spend some time in bed. With each day, however, he gets sicker and sicker. Now January is terrified because the Ney brothers are in league with the Doubreys against Fourchet and the Ney brothers are known for grabbing any slave and selling them upriver and January is in danger of having this happen to him. His only option is to take down the handkerchief and hope that Shaw gets the message and him and Hannibal return in time to save him.
This is a dark novel that really explores the life of a slave on a cane plantation, which is the hardest type of plantation to work on. You can actually get an idea of the complicated relationships between master and slave and that not all masters are good ones, like in Gone With the Wind, or evil, like in Uncle Tom's Cabin. This, in my opinion is a truer account of a slave's life and how throughout, they manage to find happiness when and where they can, however fleetingly, and endure, no matter what they are put through. This is also a story of the evil found in the hearts of humans that can lead one to consider and commit murder and other acts of violence. This book is a true tour de force and a worthy read.
I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell