While many readers and book clubs use the NYTimes bestseller list to choose their next read, it's also fun to discover an emerging author and their first novel. I recently came upon a true gem of a read, “Light in the River,” by Pamela K. Wiggins. This vivid, lazy tale goes down like the apple brandy flowing through the novel—sweet and warm—delivering a thoughtful picture of plantation life in pre-Civil War Southampton, Virginia, while illustrating the vast disparity between the lives of slaves and free blacks during this period.
Wiggins set her book on the fictitious Parker plantation, owned by a merciful master named John Parker whose gentle hand with his slaves is rooted in his conflict over the practice of slavery. Unlike his neighbors, whose treatment of their slaves resembles that pictured in Alex Haley’s “Roots,” John Parker treats his slaves more like dependent children, who conversely long for the illusive dream of freedom while fearing it as well. And while the Parker plantation is atypical, it provides a palatable vantage point from which to observe the struggles and inter-dependence that developed between land owners and slaves during this painful period in American history.
Half the book details the dramatic change in fortune that occurs for Samuel, the son of the Parker family’s beloved slave Hannah, who risks his own life to save Parkers’ daughter’s. With the best of intentions, naive John Parker sets a terrified Samuel free with a sack of coins and no preparation for life as a free man. Samuel’s trials along the Nottaway River and in 1860-ish Baltimore were enlightening and heartwarming.
Most fascinating were Wiggins’ glimpses into the private lives of slaves. In the rare moments when they secretly gather in the swamps with captives from other farms, traces of their African culture are celebrated and passed down to the next generation, spawning a new, uniquely African/American subculture.
Aside from a footnote at the end of the introduction, there are no references or historical notes which would help readers separate fiction from fact, elevating the book from a sweet read to a credible view of the period. That may occur in future editions.
Ms. Wiggins and I met through our a critique group we share, and while “A Light In The River” is the author’s first published novel, Pamela K. Wiggins, a well-respected lactation specialist, is a career medical writer who has sold millions of booklets and articles on her field of expertise—breastfeeding. With “Light in the River” she proves she is also a delightful novelist. You can order a copy of “Light in the River” at http://pamelawigginsbooks.com/. Anticipate an enlightening, entertaining read that’s gentle on the literary palette.