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No Human Being Should Own Another - an Editorial Review of "The Womb Rebellion"

Book Blurb:

The Womb Rebellion is the latest in the popular genre of books and movies related to slavery. It continues in the legacy of popular books and films such as: 12 Years a Slave, The Birth of a Nation, The Underground Railroad; and the new Hulu television series adaptation of Margaret Atwood's, “The Handmaid’s Tale”. As in “Underground Railroad”, “The Birth of a Nation” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”, the protagonists of the story are not helpless victims of the oppressive system of enslavement, but agents of change.

This story is inspired by the historical accounts of enslaved women in the American South who resisted the institution of slavery by collectively refusing to bring any child into the world who was destined to be enslaved.

The suicide of the rebellious enslaved Ruby changes both the slave quarters and the consciousness of the enslaved women, but mostly forces the enslaved midwife Pearl to face the moral dilemma involved in birthing children who will be condemned to a life of enslavement:

A peaceful Sunday morning on the Bellamy plantation is disrupted by the suicide of the rebellious Ruby, wife of the hated driver Sam. This event throws the plantation into chaos when the spirit of Ruby returns to produce havoc on the plantation. Ruby’s death most affects the midwife who has become her surrogate mother and who struggles with the requirements of the master and the pull of her African roots. Pearl, the midwife, must come to terms with what it means to help birth children who will live their lives in bondage. Ruby’s courage and actions lead the women of the quarters in a resistance to producing more slaves for the plantation.

Editorial Review:

The women slaves stood on the principle that no human beings should own another person and that no child should be born into slavery,” she said calmly. “They had a saying: 'Massa may own me and my labor, but he doesn't own this. All that I own is this here.” She held her long-fingered hands across her belly.

The Womb Rebellion is a stark depiction of life for black girls and women on a plantation during the last years before the Civil War. For fans of the latest television shows, such as “The Underground Railroad” and “The Handmaid's Tale”, this story takes on the brutality, loss of identity, and control wielded upon these women by their owners... and yet, the two main characters show incredible fortitude and strength as they survive the horrors.

While loosely based on Grovely Plantation in North Carolina USA, owned by Dr. John Bellamy, who raised livestock, wheat, oats, corn, and peanuts, and owned upwards of 82 slaves in 1860 on the plantation, much of the storyline is a fictional tale using some of the known historical experiences of slave life during the time period.

Opening the story, we meet Carrie Telfair who, after attending her aunt Ruby Pearl Clark's funeral, is determined to learn the reason for so many of her family and friends have the name Ruby, which leads her on a journey to meet 100-year-old Pearl Lancaster, a former slave, and midwife at the Bellamy Plantation in North Carolina.

Pearl tells the story of the birth of a baby named Ruby, a baby who obviously doesn't want to be born and who spends her life struggling and resisting the slave life. Pearl tries to help the young girl accept her life, to keep her mouth shut, and her 'innocence' intactt... but the Master is determined to expand his holdings by breeding more slaves. Most of the slave women have multiple children from some of the 'studs', as well as from the Master, himself, and some of his affluent white friends who take whomever they wish in their drunken states. When children are born, if they are mulatto, they bring a higher price, and the women suffer terrible grief and anxiety as children are sold off from them.

The plantation consists of the quarters, the fields, the Big House and the woods beyond. She believes that anyone with any sense at all would know that the world cannot be this small. If God created the world, all of it surely did not fit into this small space, as large as the plantation appears to be. Ruby goes off on this tack and begins to yearn to know more about the world that God created. This, too, will end badly.

Ruby is determined to not be a part of this life... and when 'her flowers come”, she vows to never bring a child into the life of slavery, even using different tricks to keep the Master, his son, and any other man at bay.

His spirit jus' choose to return home. Ya know he be Ibo, and dem Ibos don' do well wit bein' a slave.”

Pearl and Ruby grow closer, like a mother and daughter, yet another slave woman, a blind woman whose wisdom and attachment to Ruby confuses and disturbs Pearl, continues to hold on to the ancient African customs, rituals, medicinal potions, and beliefs, even as the Master's wife thinks to instruct the slaves in Christian ideals. Without Pearl's knowledge, the woman passes on some of the Ibo customs to Ruby, which will come to light later in the story.

Inevitably, Ruby falls in love with a handsome young cotton picker named Cato, and even though they satiate their desires with each other, they do so in a way as not to bring a child into this harsh world. Yet, the Master's son watches them... as does the house driver, Sam, both who want Ruby for themselves. Ruby's life changes overnight when Cato disappears, and it is revealed that he has been sold South to somewhere in Mississippi. She is devastated, not only by this but by the Master's decision to have her marry Sam and produce more babies for the plantation.

Love and loving is a perilous act for the enslaved, especially for the man. He is property like a cow, horse, or bag of rice. He cannot protect the object of his love, nor can he prevent her sale or the sale of the products of their love. Life is as good as it can be for a slave girl as Ruby discovers happiness. But the love of the enslaved is always overshadowed by the fact of their bondage, their ownership by another, the possibility of the sale of the beloved. Ruby knows that falling in love with Cato can be dangerous, possibly opening her heart to future sadness, but in this moment, her body and mind cannot care.

After much wailing and fighting, Ruby settles into a dangerous calm... especially when she discovers she is pregnant. Pearl is desperate to help her acquiesce to this life, to raise the baby she thinks is Cato's child, yet Ruby has her own rebellion set out in her mind.

For the most part, a reader might think this is Ruby's story, but when tragedy strikes the plantation involving Ruby, throwing the entire place into chaos, the ancient customs and beliefs of the Ibo fall upon every single soul on the plantation. Pearl finds herself torn between her new Christian beliefs, of bringing children into the world as the midwife, and the pull of the old African roots. In an unexpected way, Ruby helps the women rebel against the Master's desire to use his women slaves as breeding cattle in order to line his pockets with more money.

I begin to reflect upon evil: Is it greater evil to protect an innocent spirit from the hell of slavery, or to bring a child into the world and condemn him or her to slavery? Is slavery itself a sin? The preacher says blacks are being punished for the sins of Canaan, but did God say that? Why is it not a sin for a master to kill a slave, but for a slave to kill herself? Ruby, help me understand.

As a whole, the story is quite interesting and enlightening. As the reviewer, it moved me since I had the opportunity to interview Queen Quet of the Gullah Nation some years ago on the island of Saint Helena's in research for my own story of slavery in the Low Country. The use of the native Ibo-mixed English, the Gullah, is spot-on, however for many not familiar with the language, a glossary might serve well. While the fictional depiction of the Bellamy family and their ownership of the slaves brings a historical aspect to the novel, another needed aspect is some historical notes from the author as to the actual events in relation to the fictional aspects. While interesting, the characters never fully developed and much of the prose felt 'told' instead of 'shown'; however, there are moments when the theme and events overshadow these slight defects, providing an easy read one is able to finish is one sitting. In essence, this book highlights the injustice wrought upon these determined and beautiful women during this tragic period in American history.


“The Womb Rebellion” by P. W. Long receives 3.75 stars from The Historical Fiction Company


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