Geneva/James: the tomboy only-child to the Chatfields; disguises herself as a man, and joins the confederate army to protect her husband, Nash.
Nash: Geneva's artistic, idealistic husband, who abhors the violence of war.
Mars: Geneva and Nash's superior officer, who takes a liking to "James". Reeks of masculinity, and loves the adrenaline rush of a good battle.
At the plantation:
Lutie Chatfield: the lady of the plantation. Has been a shadow of herself since her heart was broken, but suddenly needs to take up leadership when the men and Geneva leave for the war.
Sin-Sin: Lutie's aide-de-camp, most powerful of the slaves.
Ernie June: the cook, second-most powerful slave. Sin-Sin's enemy.
Di-Peachy: a slave, the same age as Geneva, and raised like a sister to her. Has a very strained relationship with Lutie.
A study of the women's role in the civil war.
The war between the states breaks out, and life at the Chatfields' plantation is turned upside down.
Geneva, the daughter and spoiled only child, enlists with her husband, Nash, to watch his back. But in the mud and the blood, she sees quite a different side of both of him and of herself, and this puts a heavy strain on their relationship; and it doesn't help that their major seems to like her, but despise Nash.
At home, the power balance between Lutie, Sin-Sin, and Ernie June wobbles. Sin-Sin wants to support Lutie in her effort to run the plantation, Ernie June wants to run the house, and Di-Peachy wants to be free and do all the things Geneva (and she, by accident) was raised to do.
At first the James/Nash/Mars love triangle takes most of the attention, and it's romantic and angsty, and very funny in Brown's typical manner. However, suddenly in the middle of the book, James is revealed as Geneva, and the focus of the story moves to the intrigues and power games at home.
What makes the book special and worthwhile if you can handle the flat ending, is the glimpse of life as a house slave, with the painful and confusing dilemma between love for the home where you've lived your entire life, love for the masters you've helped raise from they were little children, and the need for freedom, family, and property of your own, shown through the love/hate relations between Lutie, Sin-Sin and Di-Peachy.
It's not "Beloved" though, and if you want black history, this isn't the book to find it in. The book diffuses it's focus over all the women of the Chatfields' plantation, and therefore becomes kaleidoscopic, and superficial.
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