Meet Molly Burwell…
She’s as confused and insecure as Ramona, as smart as Millicent Min (almost), as death-obsessed as Daisy Bagthorpe,* and as fascinatingly old-school as Laura Ingalls. And she’s as big a misfit as any of them.
And, yes, she’s a slave owner. Or at least her parents are. She’s growing up in 1840s Virginia on a Powhatan County plantation.
Molly is the star of “When Grandmamma Was New” a terribly titled memoir written around 1900. Partly because of being non-fiction and partlye because it was written over 100 years ago, the book doesn’t always crackle along the way a Beverly Cleary does. But, yes, it’s got some of that Beverly Clearly magic.
Remember when no one believes that Ramona jumped through a hole in her house? Well none of the nasty mean girls believes that Molly has secretly grown a giant beet for the county fair. And her father doubts her too. So she leads them through the cornfield triumphantly…
I ran forward, flushed and impatient, not to display my prize, but to clear myself by proving my words. An envious, jagged blade [of a cornstalk] slashed my forehead as I tore by. I did not feel it at the moment, or for half an hour after it began to bleed.
For–_the beet was gone!_
It takes a special writer to look back on their childhood at an advanced age and be able to write about it in an interesting, honest, unsentimental way. A way that remembers what it’s like to be kid and be powerless, ignored, bullied, looked down on, wronged, confused and sometimes unloved. Or at least to feel unloved.
That’s how this book starts. As Molly gets her little heart broken when her adopted and perfect sister gets a doll and Molly doesn’t. Molly’s response a violent, unforgivable attack on the doll.
Then I stripped off her gay raiment and knotted the ribbon sash about her smooth neck. I had
never tied a knot before, but this held, as did the loop I cast over a projecting branch of the sickly peach-sapling. Naked and forlorn, Rozillah[the doll] dangled a foot and more from the ground. I fetched my father’s riding-whip from the hall table, and the last feeble check upon my fury was released.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this book — such as reminders that it was really easy to die in a world without consumer protections and modern medicine — but the depiction of slavery is something that jumps out much more than the authoress could have expected.
Molly never calls the slaves “slaves,” but she uses other terms that will cause various levels of discomfort, from “servants” to “vassals” to the “n-word.” (And her use of dialect seems like it may owe as much to minstrel shows as to her actual memory. )
I have no idea what the adult Molly thought of slavery, but let me be clear that at no time does the kid Molly have a made-for-tv moment of awakening when she realizes that Mam’ Chloe deserves to be free. The book begins and ends with her thinking of the slaves as inferiors.
But this is a good thing in a way, because we get real honesty, not someone trying to hide the truth of plantation life.
The young slaves on her parent’s plantation are her playmates and maybe even friends … as long as its clear that she’s the boss of whatever game they’re up to. Then she takes a trip to Uncle Carter’s farm:
But I did not play with Uncle Carter’s little negroes. Every Southern child comprehended the distinction between “home-folks” and other people’s servants.
So clearly, that’s all a factor in your sympathy with Molly, but there’s something about her and her misfit ways you can’t help but like. You recognize her as a rebel — I don’t mean a Confederate, I mean a person who doesn’t really fit in with this complacent, self-absorbed, close-minded society. Someone who doesn’t quite grasp the wrongness of slavery, but who won’t really mind that much seeing things change. Someone who will function just fine in the modern world she’ll live to see.
*Real name Daisy Parker, of course. The similarities between Molly and Daisy, a 1980s Bristish toddler are amazing. If you know your Bagthorpes, you’ll know what I mean about an obsession with Mortality. Molly’s got it, too, right down to the urge to bury and the home-made gravestones.
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