Desert Isle Keeper
Island Queen is a very good novel about a very extraordinary woman that feels like a return to epic sagas about strong women persevering against the impossible popular in the 1970s – think A Woman of Independent Means or The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. But Island Queen is based on the real life of a very real woman, and Vanessa Riley largely succeeds in bringing her to life.
Dorothy – Doll – Kirwan Thomas was born into slavery in Montserrat. Her mother is her father’s property, and her fury at and love for the man is equal in measure. She yearns for him to legitimize both their children, and he has promised to grant them their freedom after his death via a clause in his will.
Dorothy and her sister Kitty are favored and cosseted by their rarely-home father, and Dorothy is nicknamed “Doll” by him and taught how to work with figures. But, always aware that she is her father’s property as well as his daughter, Doll understands that freedom is not truly hers. On that point, more often than not, she must deal with her half-brother, Nicholas, whose petty acts of cruelty escalate until they culminate in multiple acts of incestuous rape resulting in the birth of her first child, Lizzy (nine more will follow in time). Doll is only fourteen at the time. Soon thereafter she watches her sister be auctioned off as a punishment for her retaliation against Nicholas.
Realizing that Nicholas will never rest until she’s broken and dead beneath his heel, Doll flees to South America with Kitty, who had been purchased by Doll’s only friend, a planter named John Coseveldt Cells. Doll hopes to send for Lizzy and her mother when she can afford to pay for the freedom of all five of them; she gives birth to another child, Charlotte, conceived in a rape that occurs just before she leaves.
And so she sets about earning the necessary funds, first by becoming a merchant, then by starting a maid service, then by buying a store, then by investing in hotel properties, and finally by becoming a planter herself. From loving Cells to falling for Joseph Thomas, the merchant she marries and who becomes one of two of her true loves, to entering into an affaire of the heart with the future William IV, Doll keeps her dignity paramount – and ensures that her daughters and sons are well cared-for and safe from tyranny. Eventually, she is called upon to apply diplomacy to the situation when British rule threatens the freedom of those she holds dear.
Island Queen is soapy, but it’s filled with a rich, full-blooded sense of purpose and life. There’s only really one misstep in the entire book, but it’s not enough of one to prevent me from giving it a hearty recommendation.
Doll is self-made in every single respect but she can never forget the past. There are beautifully harrowing passages that tackle how she feels about the slaves working on her own sugar plantations that will fill the reader’s heart with sympathy for her, for instance. Riley explains in her author’s notes that she sought to write Dorothy’s story with all of its complexities and to portray her with all of her imperfections. The book pulls this off well, and Dorothy is no plaster saint, but a full-blooded human being. Cells and Joseph, too, come off as complex people – human, neither all good or all bad.
The book fearlessly speaks to the racism Doll, her family and her children experienced, and discusses the legal strictures that hemmed in women like her the world over. It also takes a deep peek into the society she would’ve had to live in, and the way she raised her very different children.
My only real problem with the book is that I would’ve liked a deeper look into the business world in which Doll thrived. A lot of ink is spilled on her personal life and private affairs, but I’d love to know more about how she built her brand, and convinced white settlers of British and Irish stripe alike to employ the services offered by a Black woman.
Island Queen is just the right mix of personal intrigue, historical scope and true tale. It’s an absolute delight.
Note: Rape, sexual abuse and incest play heavily into Doll’s backstory.