The Death of Denmark Vesey by James Paul Rice

Death of Denmark VeseyThe book’s basic plot is the story of Denmark Vesey, who in 1822 tried to create a slave revolution in Charleston. Denmark Vesey was an actual person who did plot to overthrow the slaveowners. The plot was betrayed before it could happen and based on that information and the title you can probably tell that this doesn’t end well for him. But this leaves the author with a problem, if the main character of your story has their fate determined by history then what will keep the audience invested in the story? To solve this problem Rice adds a 16 year old slave named Lucinda, who isn’t part of the conspiracy but is aware of what is going on and is sympathetic to the rebellion, to the story. Through her the audience can now become invested in her struggle to determine right and wrong. Thus the story is split between Lucinda, Vesey, the white prosecutors and a third person perspective.

Because this book is based on an actual event the historical accuracy is important. Unfortunately it is hard to determine because the trials were kept secret, Vesey never admitted guilt so he didn’t provide details and the Charleston government immediately tried to suppress information about the plot from the general public. The author also claims that Vesey was born in Africa when it is generally accepted that he was born in the Caribbean, although it is possible that this is incorrect. He did however make a point of adding some actual quotes about the trials into the dialogue of the novel.

I enjoyed this book but I will get some parts that bother me out of the way. First the book has a nasty habit of changing perspective in the middle of chapters without any warning or indication of who is currently speaking. It kind of ruins the immersive experience when you have to figure out whose thoughts your reading. Second, a lot of Vesey’s narration comes in the form of a journal where he lays out the details of the plot and who’s involved which he decides to keep despite the fact that he got rid of all the other incriminating evidence, including the names of people involved, when the plot was betrayed. It just seems incredibly stupid from an otherwise intelligent character. The third  problem is that Vesey himself could be viewed as an insulting stereotype created by a white author. While Vesey is an intelligent man who wants to end slavery despite being a free man, which are admirable qualities, he also is portrayed as a violent psychopath. Historically the plan involved murdering slaveowners in order to ensure that all the slaves could escape to Haiti, which can be interpreted multiple ways; the author takes that to mean he wanted to massacre every white person in Charleston including children in order to exterminate them before fleeing to Haiti. The only exception he makes is to allow other men to abduct, enslave (and probably rape) virgin white women who will be taken to Haiti. Also, he often lies to the other people by saying that the White people are planning to massacre them and brings reluctant people into the plot under threat of death. This portrayal does mean that the book can be seen as an endorsement of the racist stereotype of black men being angry, murderous rapists who can’t be trusted. This also undercuts the horror of the trial where he isn’t allowed to question some of the witnesses against him because the reason given, that they are afraid that his followers will murder them if they find out that they testified, is totally justified.

However there are a lot of good qualities about this book. First off I don’t believe the man who wrote this book is a racist, because while Vesey himself is portrayed a mass murdering psychopath, he is given the moral ambiguity of genuinely wanting to free his race from the shackles of slavery even though he is a relatively rich free black man who believes that the ends justify the means. The white people in the story aren’t even given the moral ambiguity of whether they are doing these things for the greater good as all of the horrors of slavery are either mentioned or described in detail. The book also raises the question of how far is too far to go in the name of freedom. This is where Lucinda comes in as she is the only one who is at a crossroads because Denmark has figured out his own morals. It also brings up the use of religion to justify slavery and violence. The white people bring up bible quotes to justify slavery and what they are doing to black people while at the same time Denmark uses the biblical story of Moses to show that slavery is wrong. He uses other bible stories to justify mass murder including Sodom and Gammorrah where God murders entire towns of people just to prove a point. The novel shows the contradictory nature of the Bible and also how this nature has been used to justify horrible things over the years including slavery and mass murder. Finally Lucinda is a great character as she not only tries to decide her own morals but is quite possibly an unreliable narrator. This is shown when parts of her story and parts of Denmark’s story overlap and include a lot of the same scenes but Denmark’s adds more to her interactions with him that she doesn’t mention until much later. This raises the question of whether she has been plotting her way of obtaining freedom since a specific incident and also raises the question of whether she has been lying to the audience about her feelings towards one specific person. However, it is entirely possible that she hasn’t been lying and instead was reacting towards the situations rather than actively plotting.

Overall I would recommend this book for the avid historical fiction reader, especially for those interested in a topic that isn’t written about much.

Review Submitted by: Madeline Rivard
Rating: Recommended

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