Summary: Even though former slaves Annie Coats and her son Gabriel have managed to buy their freedom, their lives are still marked by constant struggle and sacrifice--to the extent that Annie secretly recalls her days on the plantation with fondness. Washington's Georgetown neighborhood, where the Coatses are seeking to build their new lives--with Gabriel, a tailor, producing uniforms for soldiers and fine suits for pompous politicians, and Annie, a seamstress and laundress, catering to the nearby brothels and stately homes--is supposed to be a safe haven, a "promised land" for former slaves, but is effectively a frontier town, gritty and dangerous, with no laws protecting black people. In fact, the city's own emancipation efforts in 1862 serve only to compromise the Coats family's status, putting Gabriel's three young daughters (each of them born free of free parents) at risk of becoming the property of the Coatses' former master. The remarkable emotional energy with which the Coatses rise their daily battles--as they negotiate with their former owner, as they assist other former slaves en route to freedom, as they prepare for the encroaching war, and as they struggle to love each other enough--is what fuels this novel and makes its tragic denoument so devastating. -- Back Bay
Ever since I was a child, I have always enjoyed books that take place around and during the Civil War. When I discovered that Breena Clarke, author of the Oprah selection RIVER, CROSS MY HEART, had written a new book about a family of slaves who had bought their freedom, I just knew I wanted to read it. The book is called STAND THE STORM, and I found it to be a very well-written and touching story.
I have to admit that I didn't find this book to be an easy read. As I was reading STAND THE STORM, I enjoyed the story a great deal (although it was very depressing at times). I thought the author did an amazing job of developing the characters and bringing them to life. I also thought she did a fantastic job of showing the reader what it was like to live as a former slave in Georgetown during the Civil War period. My only issue with STAND THE STORM that I didn't find myself rushing to get back to it after I set the book down. For some reason, I liked the book but I wasn't totally caught up in the Coats' family story.
One thing I will definitely say about this book is that it was a huge wake-up call for me about the lives of former slaves. I guess I just assumed that when a black person bought their freedom that they were truly free. It's obvious to me now that that was not the case -- I probably just never thought about it all that much before reading this book. I found myself frustrated that there were countless slaves, as well as freed men and women, who had to endure so much pain and humiliation; and I'm embarrassed that these things ever occurred in our country.
Another thing that will remain in my thoughts for quite awhile after reading this book were the characters and their individual struggles. I thought so many of the characters were extremely well-developed and they seemed very real to me -- especially given how complex and flawed they were. I was continually blown away by how much they had to endure, and I found their strength and resilience to be very uplifting. As I read this book, it just seemed like no matter how much they accomplished, they were still just a minute away from losing everything. I was saddened by so many of these events, and yet I still considered this book to be one with the ultimate message of hope. Each character seemed to make sacrifices so that their children would have better lives.
Ms. Clarke has a fantastic website, and you really should visit it. I especially loved how she has a page geared towards book clubs. Not only will you find some discussion questions, but you will also find a list of recommended books about the Civil War. Ms. Clarke makes herself available to discuss either of her novels with book clubs. My group wasn't able to work out an author chat with Ms. Clarke; however, you can request one here. Another part of the website that I really appreciated was a section called "About the Book" where Ms. Clarke explains some of the inspiration behind STAND THE STORM. I found it to be fascinating and particularly insightful into the story.
I am very anxious to discuss STAND THE STORM tonight when my Preschool Moms Book Club meets. Hachette Book Group graciously offered my entire club trade paperback copies of this moving novel. I am curious to hear whether everyone enjoyed the book, and what their reaction was to the ending -- I almost dropped the book when I read it. Fortunately for us, the paperback version of STAND THE STORM includes a reading group guide with twenty thought-provoking questions. I definitely think this guide will help keep us focused on discussing the characters and their stories.
I definitely recommend STAND THE STORM if you are a fan of historical fiction and especially fiction that revolves around slavery and the Civil War. I found that this book not only moved me because I was so touched by the characters' lives, but I also felt like I gained some additional insight into this time period. It was a very interesting read and well worth my time.