The Indigo Girl
“an absolutely wonderful read . . .”
An outstanding work of fiction that introduces a historical figure with whom few will have heard of, but who played a vital role in the economic history of the colony of South Carolina.
As a 16-year-old girl, Eliza Lucas is placed in charge of the family’s three plantations by her father while he pursues his military ambitions. Giving a female, much less a female so young, such a large responsibility is unheard of in 1739 in rural South Carolina.
“Back in England, the idea that my father would leave his sixteen-year-old daughter in charge of his estates was absurd. Would anyone even take direction from me?”
Eliza is apprehensive, but her dream to be thought of as something more than “. . . chattel by a father or one day by a husband,” fuels her ambition. To manage three plantations so that they produce a profit that will fund her father’s ambitions, ensure the family’s future wealth, and provide her a dowry for a marriage someday, although she will do almost anything to avoid marrying anyone.
Immediately after informing Eliza of her new responsibilities, her father tells her that he has had to mortgage some of their property. “. . . I couldn’t think that he’d accrue more debt to our properties in order to continue his position in the military.”
In spite of Eliza’s affection and respect for her father, his continual mortgaging of their property leaves her in a precarious position. The plantation must produce in order to make mortgage payments, as well as provide for her mother, Ann, and her little sister, Polly. Then there were the slaves that must be fed, housed, and cared for. Her only advisor is her father’s friend, Charles Pinckney and his wife.
Eliza is correct to worry about men taking direction from her. The overseer of her plantation of Waccamaw, Mr. Starrat, is contemptuous of her. “Does Miss Lucas have other male assistance at Wappoo? An overseer to help with the business side of things?”
Since Eliza handles all the accounts as well as dealing with her father’s correspondence, she is incensed by Starrat’s words.
While at Waccamaw Eliza sees the slave women wearing blue dresses. The color blue is attained by the use of indigo, an extremely valuable commodity made from a plant. Eliza immediately decides to plant indigo. If she can grow it, process it into cakes of blue dye, and sell it, the profit will pay off the mortgages and provide wealth for her family.
Starrat dismisses the idea of growing indigo. “Many have tried and failed. It’s just not the right soil here.”
Eliza is determined, however, and her father sends her seeds from the West Indies where he is now serving with the British Army. Her first crop is killed by a late frost, but she tries again. Her second crop is ruined by an insect with a taste for indigo. She tries again, but realizes she needs the help of a slave named Sarah at the Waccamaw plantation. She also needs a consultant from the West Indies with experience refining the indigo plant into dye.
Starrat is not the only one who believes Eliza will fail; her mother, Ann, fervently hopes Eliza fails. If there is no successful indigo crop, the family will lose the plantations, and be forced to go to Antigua to join Eliza’s father, and eventually return to England.
In addition to hoping Eliza will fail, Ann Lucas also pushes her daughter toward choosing a husband before Eliza’s reputation is so ruined by her unfeminine ambitions and indulging in managing the plantations.
Eliza thwarts her mother’s attempts by literally kicking an elderly suitor for hitting the slave, Sarah. Even though Ann Lucas finds the suitor odious, she is appalled by Eliza’s actions both then and later at the King’s Birthday Ball. “I’d think after your utter lack of effort in attracting a suitor last night, you’d be a little more shamefaced today . . . It’s like a slap in the face to me and your father for you to behave thus.”
Ann Lucas goes on to chastise Eliza for “consorting with slaves. Treating them as equals.”
While Eliza doesn’t exactly treat the slaves as equals, she does believe that intelligence has nothing to do with color. And she is teaching her slaves at Wappoo to read. While teaching a slave to write is forbidden, the law says nothing about teaching them to read.
When the indigo consultant sent by her father arrives, he is accompanied by Eliza’s childhood friend, a slave named Ben. She is overjoyed. Ben was her very best friend in Antigua, such a close friend that her parents sold him to sever the two apart. Eliza knows that there is no hope in her world for any feelings for Ben except friendship, but she also knows friendship doesn’t begin to define how she feels for Ben.
Natasha Boyd incorporates the social issues of racial inequality, lack of women’s rights, and class distinctions into a story of one of America’s most remarkable women. Based on historical documents and interspersed with excerpts of Eliza’s letters, Boyd endows Eliza with a spirited personality and a gritty determination that brings her to life.
Boyd’s descriptive narrative is remarkable in that it is both lush as the South Carolina flora, and concise enough to evoke the humid, but semi-tropical climate without resorting to overblown prose.
The infrequent anachronistic phrase or word disappears into the overall language that evokes the 18th century without making for a slow pace or difficult reading. The Indigo Girl is an absolutely wonderful read that will even occasionally bring a tear to one’s eye. Recommended for anyone’s reading list.