Review of Cedar Grove (July 2018) by Brita Addams,
ASIN: B07FRH4LKX, 401 pages
Reviewed by Claire Matturro
Recommended – Four stars
Brita Addams in her novel Cedar Grove accomplishes something difficult—she finds one angle to a story set during the American Civil War that hasn’t been rendered a cliché in the multitude of historical fiction. Addams takes readers beyond the typical and into the cloistered world of plaçage, a kind of marriage/concubine relationship by which mixed-race Creole women formed unions with white men of wealth in New Orleans.
In Cedar Grove, the protagonist/ heroine, Creole beauty Uranie Delacroix leads a pampered life in her father’s Louisiana plantation until she reaches the age of marriage and becomes enamored with handsome plantation owner, Armand. In turn, tender-hearted, gentlemanly Armand is equally smitten with Ranie. Alas, her black blood, however small a percentage it constitutes, makes their marriage illegal in Louisiana in the 1860s.
Ranie’s father, Jared, a complex and conflicted man, does the best he can for his beloved daughter and arranges for a legal plaçage union, sometimes regarded as a “left-handed marriage,” between Armand and Ranie. Jared has a similar arrangement with a Creole whom he loves and, though he has some misgivings about the arrangement for his daughter, he considers it the only option for Ranie. Thus, Ranie becomes a placée rather than a traditional bride.
Though the plaçage element marks Cedar Grove as offering something a bit different than the usual “fiery Southern Belle” historical romances that populate book shelves, it is not the dominant thread in the book. Rather, Ranie herself is the foremost focus and force in the novel as she faces increasing adversity in a changing world.
The story opens with a sense of innocence and luxury in the days before Louisiana secedes from the Union as Ranie and her half-sister Elyse enjoy their sheltered, indulgent life at their father’s prosperous plantation. Despite the fact Ranie’s mother is a slave on the place, Ranie is raised in the Big House and mostly treated as an equal to her sister. Entwined since birth, Ranie and Elyse are close, sharing their secrets and plans for marriage and children. They want always to live near each other and stay best friends as well as sisters. Ranie’s plaçage arrangement in New Orleans disrupts those plans, however.
Of course, things quickly change as the war comes to their back yard and the Union Army invades. Ranie, by then the mother of an infant boy, must flee New Orleans when it comes under the control of the infamous Benjamin “Beast” Butler. Armand has long since been swept up in the war as a misplaced soldier. On her own, Ranie faces multiple dangers as she makes her way from the city back to the plantation, seeking safety for herself and her son. Along the way, she encounters a Union captain who will later come to bedevil her world when he commandeers the plantation as his own headquarters.
Though she survives her flight from the city, Ranie does not find safety back at the plantation. Her father is sick, her sister is married to a wounded prisoner of war, and the once plentiful riches of the household are depleted. The sisters renew their bond and fight to survive, even as the Yankees invade their house and a brutal skirmish floods their home with wounded.
Ranie must come to terms not only with her endangered situation and her financial destitution but with her mixed loyalties. She hates slavery and wants the North to win the war to end slavery. Her response when she hears men speak of the “blessings of slavery” during the secession conference is fierce, and she challenges her slave-owning father with a fiery determination to open his eyes to slavery’s evils. She comes to realize that despite being the child of a slave, she’s been raised in luxury because of the suffering of other slaves. Yet, as much as she detests the institution of slavery, she loves Elyse and her father and does not want them destroyed by war. Her maturation as she struggles emotionally and intellectually—as well as physically—against all the odds makes Ranie a fascinating heroine.
The author does not completely escape falling into Civil War fiction clichés, though for the most part her characters come across as fresh and complex even if some of the situations seem like familiar, overplayed tropes. As with many books, there are moments in the plot that stretch credibility, but such matters are easily forgiven in light of how vividly drawn and captivating Ranie is as she strives to find her way in a brutal new reality.
Perhaps one reason Addams does such a grand job in bringing Ranie to life on the pages is because her protagonist is based upon Addams’ husband’s beloved grandmother, Uranie Madere Berthelot. Addams shares more about the real woman and her relationship with her in a blog at https://www.britaaddams.net/single-post/2019/01/01/Oddball-Influences.
All in all, Cedar Grove is a riveting, impeccably researched story of a strong woman faced with hard choices and threatened by deprivation and danger during a time of great turmoil. It is also a story of the enduring love between sisters, and has just the right touches of adventure and romance.