This historical romance, by the Scottish author of The Mermaid and the Bear, continues following the Monteith family. Sinclair’s second novel is set in the 1740s during the fateful years leading up to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion and its aftermath. Beginning in the castle near Aberdeen, the action quickly shifts away from Scotland however, with most of the story taking place on a tobacco plantation in Pennsylvania. The Scottish heroine, Lady Elizabeth Monteith from “the castle” is kidnapped from her native Scotland and views its tragedy from the far-off American colonies. She is sold as an indentured servant, cook to an enlightened, mysterious “master”, Michael.
The novel is written in the first person with Beth relating the events in chronological order. Elizabeth, or “Beth” as she becomes, is a warm, likeable and very determined character. Her humanity and sense of humour rarely desert her. It is only in the aftermath of Culloden when she hears of the Jacobite defeat that her resilience flags and she succumbs to depression. Wisely, Sinclair chooses not to second guess the events of Culloden. Although most readers will already know the outcome of the Jacobite rising, Beth does not and a suitable period of time rolls by until the news crosses the ocean from Scotland.
The story follows Beth’s transformation from scared teenage captive to a capable and confident, practical young woman as she adapts to her new situation, ultimately leading to a decision between the old life and the new. It is set against the background of slavery, the social inequalities between free whites, indentured servants, native Americans and black slaves. Beth has a disarming acceptance of all races which today might be dismissed as “colour blindness” but in the context of an 18th century character is refreshing. Relations between the different racial and social groups are handed sensitively, even if it is sometimes a little difficult to believe in Beth’s naïve and childlike views.
There is an interesting range of characters from the evil (historical) Alexander Young, first mate on the ship which transports Beth to her new life, to the central figures of Sarah, the unpleasant Mrs Sauer, the elderly man Comfort and the two men in Beth’s life. Peter, her young companion in captivity, a fellow Scot, disappears from the story for much of the book, while Michael, the manager of the estates, emerges from the shadows in a series of revelations and surprising twists.
The sense of time and place is well drawn; and the modest sprinkling of Scottish dialect words adds to the authentic voice of the narrator. Despite the central themes of slavery and racial intolerance, the occasional savagery of a scene (the pregnant Nivvie being whipped by the foreman) and the references to the brutal traitors’ deaths of the captured Jacobites, this is a gentle, hopeful and entertaining book. The plot keeps the reader guessing its outcome until the very last page.