January 24, 2013 Book Club blog by Cindy Bushey
The book opens with a young female slave sprinting for freedom, determined to find that elusive something, the yearning for which burns inside her like a flame. Her desperation is apparent with each gasping breath, her fear of pursuit evident with each glance she flings over her shoulder. Sounds like a promising opening sure to grab and hold the reader’s attention, right? Unfortunately, in the opinion ofZion’s readers, the prologue of The Loom by Sheila Gillus might be the best part of the book!
The slave girlLydia, through some unexplained genetic quirk, is light skinned. So light, in fact, that at the urging of her friend, the master’s daughter, she passes herself off as white. Denied freedom by running, she determines to find it by inserting herself into the world of white people. But she is torn by her ties to John, the slave she comes to love, and to her black family. Her failing grandmother dwells in the loom room, one final way for aging slaves to pay their way on a plantation by weaving fabric from the cotton crop before they succumb to death. After the brutal, capricious murder of her father, even John’s love, deep and encompassing as it is, cannot hold her on the plantation. So she embarks on her journey with no concrete plans and no funds, ending on a neighboring plantation where she tries to keep her ruse alive.
While the tensions necessary for a good story were there (love vs. freedom, white vs. black), Ms. Gillus failed to fully develop their potential. Zion’s readers found the story to be disjointed and the characters one-dimensional. In general, the characters did not inspire an emotional response from our readers or any particular empathy for their dilemmas. There were too many threads to the story which the author wove in for a brief time and then dropped. Stereotypes abounded of the tyrannical plantation owners and their managers, their powerless wives, the abject poverty of the slaves, but their trials never pulled our readers into the fabric of their lives. Even after reading her explanations in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, we did not appreciate the symbolism of the loom or one character’s rotting tooth. In fact, many of us forced ourselves to finish the book, having become totally bored withLydia’s “do I go back to John, do I marry the plantation owner” question. We just wanted the story to be over and done. Perhaps our mood did not allow us to enjoy the fairy tale conclusion employed by the author whereby ever-faithful John was miraculously the key to the freedomLydiasought.
Hopefully, since this is Ms. Gillus’s first novel, she has better stories ahead of her. As one reader with editorial experience opined, “how did this get into print?” Maybe we readers are just a really tough crowd, or we are making unjust comparisons to novels such as The Help or The Kitchen House. Whatever the reasons, it will come as no surprise that The Loom received one neutral vote, seven 1-thumb down votes, and two 2-thumbs down votes. Our next selection will be Cutting For Stone, and we invite readers of this column to read along with us.