For what I’m sure are racist reasons, the narrative surrounding the Civil War has been moving a retelling in which the Confederacy was a group of well-meaning people trying to fight for their land and states rights. When I was a kid, school taught us that narrative. It wasn’t about slavery. It was about states’ rights! Yeah, states rights to have the right to own human beings, but sure, “states’ rights.”
Unfortunately, this deviation from the plain truth that the people who fought for the Confederacy were fighting to own humans, pervaded my young adult fiction. I briefly discussed the Civil War in my review of Fear Street Sagas #2: House of Whispers, wherein the topic of the Civil War is more of a brief mention. However, in the next book in the Fear Street Sagas series, #3: Forbidden Secrets, the topic of slavery and the interactions between slaves and slaveowners is an important plot point. And all this is done with any actual black people (well, except for one coded one – we’ll get to that).
So join me as I read this book that was the product of an attempt to make the Civil War less about blatant racism and more about some vague idea of “states rights.” A book about using black culture without any black people. A book devoid of shame.
We start in Blackrose Manor with an old woman telling her story, not unlike the beginning of Titanic. Unlike the movie, the woman in this story is not telling the story to her son so he can grave rob. The woman in the book is telling her story to no one in particular and refers to all the events in the third person. Oh good. She’s a crazy lady.
The story shifts to 1861 in Whispering Oaks, Georgia. Savannah Gentry is looking over her father’s plantation and she tells us that it’s a special day – her birthday. And because it’s her birthday, her father has given all the slaves the day off. Great. He owns people as if they are sofas, but at least he gives them his daughter’s birthday off. That makes up for the whippings, I’m sure. (This article contains sarcasm, in case you’re a Texas politician who doesn’t understand satire.)
Anyway, Savannah has an older sister named Victoria, and Victoria has been picking up some “strange habits” from the slaves. Do we learn the names of any of these slaves who have been teaching Victoria these “strange habits?” The ones who get a day off to help celebrate Savannah’s birthday? No, of course not! Do we get any black people? Maybe – we’ll get to that.
Anyway, Savannah finds Victoria in the middle of one of her “rituals.” The narrator never explicitly says what Victoria’s doing, but I think we all know what she’s doing.
After Savannah gets her sister’s attention, Victoria asks her where Tyler Fier, their brother Zacariah’s new friend, is hiding.
“At the party. I came here because I wanted to talk to you.”
Victoria narrowed her brown eyes. “I don’t trust Tyler.”
“Did you think you could hurt him by killing little pigs?” Savannah asked.
“I thought I could learn something about him through performing this ritual.” Victoria smiled triumphantly. “And I did.”
Savannah fumed. “You have no right-”
“I have every right,” Victoria insisted in a rush. “I’m older than you are. I have to protect you.”
“I don’t need you to protect me from Tyler.” Savannah spun on her heel and began to walk away.
“You’re wrong!” Victoria cried. “Tyler Fier comes from a cursed family.”
“I’m worried about you. You must stay away from Tyler Fier!”
So Savannah agrees to marry Tyler.
But there’s a problem! War has broken out! A guy literally rides by on a horse and yells, “War has broken out!”
Tyler says he’s going to fight for the north. Savannah is irate because she loves owning people. Well, she’s not explicit about it, but we all know why a lily-white delicate slave owner’s daughter doesn’t want to “turn her back on the south.”
So Tyler leaves, but not before shouting, “You will regret choosing the South over me!” Great northern representation there, Stine.
Anyway, the war drags on and Victoria and Savannah find themselves eating worms because their slaves ran away. My empathy meter ends for people who own other people who were kidnapped and forced to work on land stolen from another group of people. The most I can muster for them is, “You had to eat worms, huh?”
In the middle of the night, Savannah hears some strange sounds in the doorway of the plantation they still own and live in.
Savannah’s eyes widened with recognition. “Zachariah!”
Gunpowder covered her brother’s tattered gray uniform, his face, his hair. The odor burned Savannah’s nostrils.
Zachariah’s ashen face was grim. His once-vibrant green eyes were dark and vacant. His blonde hair matted with sweat and dirt.
He opened his mouth, opened his mouth to speak.
And deep red blood spilled from his lips.
Then she wakes up! Oh, it was all a dream! Or was it? There’s blood where he was standing! There is only one explanation: bleeding dream ghost come to provide a scare in between worm-eating and not repairing the house. But what happened to Zachariah?
Well, Tyler sends them a letter.
Zachariah is dead. I am so sorry. We were both fighting in Gettysburg. I saw him fall. Later I learned of his death.
As I watched the soldiers bury your brother, I imagined myself in the grave beside him – dead. Never seeing you again. Never holding you again.
Forgive me, Savannah. All the deaths in the war made me realize people are more important than North or South.
Wait for me. I will come back for you.
I don’t know if we need that stinger after “in the grave beside him.” What else would you be in a grave? “I imagined myself in the grave beside him – doing the Charleston and exploring the wreckage of the Merrimack.”
Also, I’d say that not treating people like objects is more important than geographic location, but that’s just me. I am not letting up on this. This book is a tone-deaf encapsulation of the Boomer rewriting of history to make it more palatable for white people.
Speaking of white people, Savannah asks Victoria to use her “dark arts” (just say “voodoo,” Stine, we know what voodoo is) to see if Tyler is okay. So, Victoria scrounges up some chicken feet and dark liquid to start the ritual. Savannah squirms when Victoria asks her to kiss the chicken feet.
How about this, girls – instead of smothering the dilapidated house in “dark liquid” and eating worms, you eat the chicken feet, pick up a hammer, and do some home repairs. Also, Savannah, you ate worms and you’re squirming at the thought of kissing chicken feet? Better yet, use magic to help their station in life? A spell for food perhaps? These idiots deserve no sympathy.
Well, instead of using magic for something practical, Victoria discovers that Tyler Fier is evil and bad luck follows his family. Cool “discovery.” Are you also going to “discover” that water is wet? I wish you would “discover” that black people are humans.
Anyway, Savannah wrestles a sheet and just like that, the war is over. I’m not sure if the sheet wrestling and the war are related, but that’s what it seems like.
And then Tyler shows up! He’s all, “Hey, I know you were on the other side, but I still want to marry you and I have a big house in the north that has a pretty cool name and I’m sure it’s better than living in this house that you don’t have the skills to maintain.”
Savannah agrees but only if Victoria comes with, to which Victoria acquiesces but not before saying
“If we go to Blackrose Manor, one of us will be buried there before the year is out!”
And we’re at the manor and we meet Mrs. Mooreland, who is weird, and a random thirteen-year-old girl named Lucy, who is not only weird but she thinks flames are pretty and she likes how they “dance.” There’s also a woman named Hattie who has a cat. She’s pleasant enough and the only black person, even if the depiction is coded. The cat is a cat and is no weirder than other cats.
Savannah doesn’t like how dark the house is and so she spends her time trying to add color to the decorations. She also spends time with Lucy, who collects weird dolls, like a proper girl in a horror novel.
Savannah spotted a doll lying on its side on top of the dresser bureau. Its profile was perfect: a small nose, a ruddy cheek, thin lips, a large, shining black eye.
I’ll pick this doll, Savannah decided. She lifted it up and gasped.
The other side of the doll’s face was smashed in. Tiny bits of jagged china formed a gaping hole where the eye had been.
“What happened to this doll?” Savannah asked Lucy.
“I killed her.”
That’s pretty good and creepy. I’ll give it up to Stine for that one.
Meanwhile, Victoria is spending her time yelling and giving Savannah hawk’s eyes and pouches full of grave dirt. Y’all, this is getting wacky. In addition to her usual spouting about evil, she reveals that Lucy may look thirteen, but she’s actually seventeen. Lucy is super weird.
The cat gets attacked and we think it’s dead, but it’s not really. Unfortunately, a horse bashes Hattie’s skull in. The only pleasant character – a helper – is killed off. She was the only character of color in a book featuring slaves and voodoo. Fantastic.
Then Mrs. Moreland dies. Savannah finds her crumpled up in the oven. Then Savannah hears Tyler and Victoria arguing. Victoria is doing her usual ranting about evil. Tyler reveals that Victoria made the horse freak out with jimson weed, set fire to Savannah’s curtains, and poisoned the cat, and then Victoria tries to stab Tyler. Instead, Victoria falls on her own knife and dies. Despite dying, she has to let out one last uttering about evil.
“You have let the evil live.”
At Victoria’s funeral, the ropes snap as they’re lowering her coffin and she falls out. At this point, it’s all so wacky it belongs in a British comedy sketch show. I’m sure a scantily clad nurse and a policeman chased each other around the gravestones and Cyprus trees.
Anyway, it turns out Lucy killed her parents in a fire and while she’s off red-herring-ing all over the house, Tyler pushes her down some stairs and we’re finally at the big finale.
Tyler is already dead. He’s been dead since Gettysburg and he killed Savannah’s brother. You see, Victoria isn’t the only one appropriating culture – Tyler is also dabbling in voodoo! Well, he doesn’t expressly say the word “voodoo;” like Victoria, he says “the dark arts.”
For Tyler to continue living, he has to kill humans and feed on them – a sort of zombie/vampire hybrid. A Zombire. He wanted Savannah to be the last, but she doesn’t let him consume her and throws grave dust and other magical bric-a-brac to stop him. Eventually, he just rots away, leaving Savannah to tell her story to Tyler’s skeleton, who is sitting next to her.
You can’t set a story in the 1860’s south without addressing the Civil War. You also can’t have a likable protagonist who owns people. At least, I can’t like someone like that. Maybe times have changed since this book was published (1996). However, that would mean that as recently as the ‘90s, people could read a book and forgive slavery. Unfortunately, as I wrote that sentence, I thought, “Yeah, I don’t think much has changed after all.”
There’s an interview with Octavia Butler (one of my favorite writers) regarding a trip she took to a plantation. The tour guide referred to the slaves as “helpers.” This blatant attempt to relieve white people of their sin pervades the writing of this book. Even though Savannah’s family owns slaves, it’s okay because Victoria hangs out with them? What is that? That’s not better. The ramifications of slavery still affect the black community to this day and we can’t fix the institutional racism against their community unless we teach the cruelty and dehumanization of the practice. They weren’t “helpers” – they were slaves. And it doesn’t matter if a slave owner was kind or spent time with the slaves – they still owned people and all slaveownersdeserve condemnation even to the discomfort of white people. No matter how much discomfort a white person feels, I guarantee, slaves felt worse. And slaves were people, deserving of dignity, freedom, and their own narratives.
For a list of every Baby-Sitters Club, Goosebumps, and Fear Street book review I’ve done, go to RereadingMyChildhood.com or follow RereadMyChildhd on Twitter. For more information about me, Amy A. Cowan, visit my website AmyACowan.com or follow my Twitter: amyacowan.