Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen
Sarah Bird misses the mark by a wide mile as she relates the real-life tale of Miss Cathay Williams (the author persists in misspelling her name as ‘Cathy’ throughout), a prominent figure in the Civil War who was a Buffalo Soldier, living her life posing as a man so she could find her scattered family, get to the West, and experience freedom.
When the plantation on which she’s enslaved is conquered by General Philip Sherridan, Cathay – whose skinny form enables her to pass for a boy – is conscripted, at gunpoint, into his army unit as the company’s cook!
Cathay knows that there’s a future out there for her that has nothing to do with being the claimed property of Sherridan. On her way to the military camp, she holes up in a barn and meets a dying soldier. From him, she learns that she might be able to battle her way to freedom – if she’s clever. She and that soldier begin to fall in love – her strong link back to the Africa he’s never been to, forged by her mother and grandmother’s memories of life there as warrior royalty, stuns and beguiles him – but all is lost when he seemingly succumbs to his wounds. She learns too late that his name is Wagner Swayne.
Cathay becomes an assistant cook to Solomon Yarnell, who both takes her under his wing, and punishes her misbehavior to equal degrees. Reunited with her sister, Clemmie, and another important party when the war is over, Cathay plans on marrying Solomon and moving out west, but is ripped from his arms. Lost in grief but still clinging to her dreams, she then adopts the guise of William Cathay and joins the Buffalo Soldiers. Still holding out hope that the west will offer her promise, she instead finds herself dodging discovery and prejudice of many stripes while reporting to an incompetent superior, and involved in an endless war against Native Americans the government wishes to see rounded up and killed so that white settlers may take their land. Cathay nonetheless works her way towards a marksman’s medal. But what will Cathay do when she is discovered? And will she ever earn Sherridan’s respect?
Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen had so much potential. The book does do several things right, including the excellent points made about the way black men and women had to live through horrors and debasement, to eke out survival, and of the lies they were forced to tell to the white people they loathed to make it to some semblance of survival. The novel’s battle scenes are properly rousing, and the observations of army life feel realistic and work well, as do the well-detailed difficulties of posing as someone of the opposing sex.
But the author falls into several traps when it comes to portraying her black characters as well-rounded people (and is far, far worse at portraying the native American characters who appear later in the text), and sadly, stereotypes permeate the novel. While Cathay almost springs to life as a full-blooded woman, in several ways she comes off as a breathing chunk of cardboard.
To accomplish what she must with her character, Bird hopelessly skews the timeline; adding two important relationships for Cathay that didn’t happen to her in real life, and does a great disservice to her by basing her motivation solely around a forbidden romance she never experienced.
Building Cathay’s initial purpose around impressing Sherridan is false and faulty, and not the least bit squirmworthy. There are lots of weirdly worshipful portrayals of white bodies in some segments of the text, which makes no sense for Cathay’s point of view, as all of the white people Cathay has encountered in her life before Sherridan have abused her (this is counterbalanced later on by Swayne’s fetishizing her blackness). She even spies on a white lesbian couple making love and admires their freedom and forms in a scene that exists for no reason other than to titillate the audience. There are other moments – like Cathay visiting a prostitute to prove Bill’s ‘manhood’ – which are similarly cringeworthy.
I could write a book of my own about the other unnecessary moments like that which crop up in the story like chunks of cow crud, moments like the scene in which Cathay smiles when Colonel Sherridan calls her a ‘splendid specimen’. Even worse is an encounter between Cathay, her regiment and a tribe of Seminole led by John Horse. If Bird’s black characters are wooden stereotypes, Ms. Bird’s native characters suggest her only contact with any First Nations person has been limited to John Wayne movies (also Ms. Bird is wrong, white people did try to enslave native people).
But worst of all is the love story between Cathay and Swayne, which is instantaneously built and completely ahisoric. Cathay was married once, and it was a bad marriage in which her property was stolen; Swayne was not involved with her nor was he anywhere near her regiment during crucial parts of the story. Added to this, Swayne’s fetishization of her blackness is at best uncomfortable and at worst cringeworthy, and works to diminish Cathay’s true motivations and reason for survival (which had nothing to do with a white general she never met), and her love for him is created as an all-consuming influence, inserted poorly as an attempted catalyst for her future behavior. The author seems to want to do nothing more than mill some pulp from their forbidden romance, when Cathay’s story was about so much more.
Research failures also abound. Would Cathy know what a brown recluse spider was by name when she doesn’t know what a ferret is? A crucial plot point involves the amputation of Cathay’s toes, which didn’t happen until after her time in the service ended. There are other bizarre writing quirks, like the author’s insistence on censoring out curse words while describing death in the most brutal manner possible.
Cathay’s sister Clemmie – who pulls herself together, becomes a camp follower and gains a lot of grit and spit along the way – has just as interesting a way about her but receives the narrative short shrift. Maybe if the author had fictionalized her less-known life it would’ve been more interesting than the book we’ve ended up with.