Last week I finished reading Keturah by Lisa T. Bergren, the first in a three-book series called the Sugar Baron’s Daughters. The historical novel follows three sisters as they journey across the ocean in the late 18th century from England to the West Indies and attempt the impossible: rescuing their family’s fledgling sugar farm as women in a man’s world, and an untamed one at that. Here’s the summary from the back cover:
In 1773 England, Lady Keturah Banning Tomlinson and her sisters find themselves the heiresses of their father’s estates and know they have one option: Go to the West Indies to save what is left of their heritage.
Although it flies against all the conventions, they’re determined to make their own way in the world. But once they arrive in the Caribbean, conventions are the least of their concerns. On the infamous island of Nevis, the sisters discover the legacy of the legendary sugar barons has vastly declined–and that’s just the start of what their eyes are opened to in this harsh and unfamiliar world.
Keturah never intends to put herself at the mercy of a man again, but every man on the island seems to be trying to win her hand and, with it, the ownership of her plantation. She could desperately use an ally, but even an unexpected reunion with a childhood friend leaves her questioning his motives.
To keep her family together and save the plantation that is her last chance at providing for them, can Keturah ever surrender her stubbornness and guarded heart to God and find the healing and love awaiting her?
Now, aren’t you intrigued?
Keturah Spiritual Content & Themes
Unlike too many Christian fiction books, this book does not shy away from difficult themes. I personally appreciate that. Good fiction causes us to wrestle with real questions, and that this book does.
Some of the themes she explores are:
- A heart closed off from God – The main character has seen God to be a let-down. He’s failed to be good and failed to protect her. Bergren wrote this in a realistic and believable way. Keturah’s response to her past is spot on with the reactions of many people around us. She did a wonderful job of having Keturah wrestle with her relationship with God in a meaningful and gradual way. Even though there is a “big moment” spiritually, her transformation continues to be gradual.
- Slavery: Slavery was a way of life in the 18th and 19th centuries. The sisters have grown up with slaves, but encounter a level of barbaric cruelty they have not seen before when they reach the island. At times we see Keturah deeply troubled by what she sees and seeking to resolve it by treating her slaves differently. At other times we see her turning her head from the reality of the slave markets and the reality that she owns other human beings. She has to, because she has a business to run and a livelihood to make, and she has to find some inner justification for the practice because no other way exists – at least to her. In some ways, she sees her slaves as family, and in other ways, her prejudice is evident – probably more to us than to her! Bergren does not shy away from writing some gruesome and disturbing realities of slavery. I’m grateful she doesn’t. She lets the reader sit with the discomfort of what reality was. She also doesn’t resolve it – the story isn’t about Keturah becoming an abolitionist and freeing all the slaves on the island. The issue of slavery remains. We see Keturah wrestle, we see her perspective change slightly, but slavery is still there, because it was there, and that is a tragic reality we all have to grapple with.
- Patriarchy: Patriarchy was also the way of life. This book illustrates what happens when humans distort God’s intention for male and female. God’s design was for men to protect, care for, and lead women so that they would flourish. Man’s distortion is for men to lord over females and use them for their own gain and pleasure. At times, Keturah feels no different than the slaves – her life is “owned” and directed by the whims of men. She is powerless over them. It may look prettier from her place of finery, but oppression is oppression, and it’s all wrong. Again, Bergren addresses this issue not directly with a rising up of women and with politicized character monologues but by simply revealing what history tells us was (and too often still is) true – then letting us wrestle with it.
- Abuse: Physical, emotional, verbal, and sexual abuse are all addressed in this book, both in a character’s past and in present circumstances. Bergren is not graphic, but she is explicit – what I mean is that she does not gratuitously describe abuse situations in crime scene detail, but she does make clear what is happening in a raw way. This may be hard for some readers who have experienced abuse personally to read. It’s worth trudging through though because she shows how God can bring healing and freedom from the past.
- Healing: The true beginning of Keturah’s healing happens when she begins to realize that God was with her in the middle of the awful circumstances she went through. He didn’t abandon her, and He wasn’t to blame for what she experienced. She begins to grasp that her past does not have to have power over her and that God can craft a new story for her. As she remembers the identity HE has given her instead of the identity others imposed upon her, she is able to open her heart to God again, which in turn allows her to eventually open her heart to love again.
Because I’m writing too much, I’m going to rate these on a scale of 0 to 10 and say little more.
- Character development: 10. Each character seems like a real person. Their personalities are evident through their actions and their personalities. Every character, from minor to major, is well-developed.
- Character growth: 8. Keturah’s character growth is gradual, believable, and follows a long range trajectory. There isn’t much character growth among secondary characters, but Keturah’s is focal.
- Resolve: 8. This is hard to answer, because I don’t know where she’ll go in the next two books. I felt satisfactorily resolved for now yet simultaneously wanting for more – in a good way, in the pre-order-the-next-book kind of way. How she develops the story in the subsequent books will affect whether this number goes up or down. If it were a stand alone book, I’d maybe rate it lower, but since she has a series in mind, I am guessing there is more to tell. That being said, I also appreciate that sequel or not, she doesn’t wrap everything up in a pretty bow – because let’s be real, that’s not life.
- Drama: 10. It’s realistically compelling without being overly, obnoxiously dramatic. They encounter a lot, but it’s all believable because that was life in that day crossing oceans and living in the West Indies. The drama kept it engaging without making me roll my eyes saying, “here’s another unrealistic dramatic development”.
- Length: 10. It’s over 350 pages. I’m a fast reader, so anything shorter feels too short, and in my opinion, it’s hard to develop a complex story with deep character development and satisfactory, unrushed endings in anything less than that. The length felt just right.
- Descriptions: 10. This book is descriptively rich. You feel like you are there on the ship, and later the island, with the characters. She doesn’t have paragraphs detailing everything in sight, but gives rich and thorough glimpses showing the reader the lush landscape of the island and the historical reality of the setting.
- Historicity: 8. She brings the time period to life through careful research. It’s a true historical fiction book – a book through which the reader actually learns about the time and place of its setting rather than simply a story that is set in history. The time, place, and setting are as important as the story itself; they can’t be disconnected. The only reason it’s not a 10 is because it isn’t written entirely in period-appropriate language, which was a good choice on her part – that would be cumbersome to read!
- Romance: 7. The romance is secondary, but I like this (personal preference). The real “plot” is not a romance but a young woman’s efforts to save her family. In that are many secondary plotlines: running a sugar plantation, slavery, the hostility of her neighbors, and the romance. It is not a romance novel; it is a novel with a romance in it. That being said, I only have one critique of the romance aspect (see below).
Critiques of Keturah
- The writing style includes a little bit of old English dialogue and expressions. On one hand, I appreciate that, as it enhanced the historicity. She writes in the author’s note that she intentionally chose not to write the dialogue entirely in Old English style because it would be too difficult to read. I agree with that choice, however, at times the Old English language/expressions felt random or out of place. Perhaps an all-or-nothing approach with the Old English dialogue would have been better. But really, that’s a pretty minor critique.
- The climactic romance “moment” between the male and female protagonist was a little too sudden for me. She did a good job of building the romance and the character’s feelings, but that particular moment felt too dramatic to be believable. Perhaps dramatic isn’t the right word. Too big of a jump for the heroine. I don’t want to give too much a way, but I think I would have written that moment as a climactic build that left the reader wanting that moment but didn’t peak quite yet, then peaks. To me, a good romance is like a series of subtly increasing mountain peaks that build toward the biggest peak. This was still a great romance, but the leap between those particular two peaks was too big.
- I have to wait a year to read the second one 🙂
All in all this was a beautiful, compelling story rich with description and ripe with topics to grapple with and spiritual truths to glean. Lisa T. Bergren, I’m counting down days until Verity comes out!