Desert Isle Keeper
An Unconditional Freedom
Daniel Cumberland and Janeta Sanchez could not have joined the Loyal League for more different reasons. Born free and then sold into slavery, Daniel uses the League to provide structure for vengeance against, in particular, the Sons of the Confederacy organization. By contrast, Janeta – whose Cuban plantation owner father freed her enslaved mother and then married her – is there to spy on the spies, hoping to gain information that will buy her father’s freedom from Union prison. This story is honest, raw, and dark, and while the romance isn’t as strong as I’d have liked, I still recommend An Unconditional Freedom as a deeply affecting read.
The strongest aspect of this story by far is the intersection of history and character. Daniel was kidnapped out of his life as a trainee-attorney Northern freeman to be sold into slavery. Daniel is a protector, and the author effectively shows that his experience being enslaved was not traumatic only because of his own suffering, but also because being unable to protect the people around him on the plantation made him feel like a failure. The nightmares, flashbacks, and other manifestations of trauma he experiences after his rescue torment him, seeming like further evidence of personal weakness when he contrasts himself with people who spent longer in slavery or otherwise suffered, in his subjective analysis, “worse.” While I wish those had been the traumas he confronted in the climax instead of his claustrophobia and fear of being a jinx, the multidimensionality and raw authenticity of his pain leapt off the page and settled like a weight in my chest as I read. That’s powerful writing.
Creating Janeta as the heroine was also a strong choice by the author, because her journey of self-conceptualization in terms of race and class is fascinating and illuminating. In Cuba, Janeta’s enslaved mother was freed and became her father’s second wife, making Janeta a free, wealthy plantation princesa – but one who is black. In many ways, this is the story of Janeta’s blinders coming off to the ways in which wealth and the peculiarities of her “small pond” buffered her against the way someone of her color would be treated in other places (although even in her father’s home, she was never fully equal with the white daughters of his first wife). I appreciated the depth and nuance with which the author traced Janeta’s journey. Yes, Janeta is in some ways innocent and manipulated, but she also confronts the fact that in other ways, she was complicit in her innocence: there were questions she stopped asking, or deliberately never asked in the first place because she suspected the answer would be problematic. She also has to critically examine her mother’s emphasis on deriving her value from her ability to please others, especially men, and especially sexually.
NOT fascinating are Janeta’s endless ruminations about Henry, the white Confederate she loved who duped her into spying, and her choice to spy on the Loyal League for Henry in order to free her father. These scenes are repetitive – ‘I can’t betray them for Papi! But I must!’ happens at least three times – and every time she comes to a decision or realization that had already occurred in a previous chapter, it made her character feel stagnant. (On the other hand, it was interesting to do some Googling and find that there really was a female Sanchez – Lola Sanchez – in Janeta’s town of Paletka, Florida, who performed the spying attributed here to Janeta. I always respect authors who work that level of research into their stories).
Janeta and Daniel are deep, complex characters who help each other grow and heal, respectively. However, maybe this excellent history and character development took a bit of the page count from the romance. I would have liked more chemistry between the two of them, because sometimes they come across more as therapists than lovers. Both also spend too much time thinking about their previous loves – in the climax, Daniel even thinks of his former love’s faith in him alongside Janeta’s. Their transition to lovers feels abrupt, and I vote it’s time to retire ‘I can’t sleep, so I need to wander innocently to the library in my nightclothes for a book.’ The moment you read that, you know they’d better not have upholstered the chaise lounge in a fabric that shows stains.
There’s a pacing issue when a chapter ends in the middle of a naval battle, and the next chapter picks up and goes a few pages before revealing that oh, yeah, the battle ended, off camera, and Janeta and Daniel were set ashore, also off-camera, and now they’re making camp. On occasion, the prose gets carried away with itself:
“The same optimism Daniel had once felt… galloped through the arid plains of his soul, leaving a trail of verdant green. That trail of green sliced through him like a wound.”
So the optimism is a horse, but a horse that makes grass, but grass that cuts people? Unclear.
As a romance, this book is a B+ for me, but as a work of fiction, it’s an A-, and that’s the grade I’ve settled on. It reflects the fact that An Unconditional Freedom is profoundly powerful and worth reading. In a moving afterword, the author writes about how challenging it was to promise an HEA to her characters in a country that was not only so corrupt in its time period, but also remains plagued by structural and individual white supremacy to this day. I hope our community is inspired by books like this to take our love of the HEA off the page and work for it in the real world.