I received a copy of Original Sins by Peg Kingman from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program.
About the Book:
The year is 1840. Slavery is in full swing in the South and the abolitionist movement is gaining momentum. Grace MacDonald Pollocke is a newcomer to America, having grown up in Scotland, India, and China. Try as she might, she cannot come to grips with the unfathomable institution of slavery and the country that allows one human to own another any more than she can understand Americans themselves. She spends her time painting portraits in her Philadelphia home for the well-to-do and caring for her toddler son, Daniel.
Grace has been expecting her husband, Daniel, to return to Philadelphia from his long stay in China any day. What she isn’t expecting is the piece of her past that accompanies him. Suddenly, Grace is forced to put her beliefs into action in ways she never could have expected.
When I first received Original Sins for review, I was intrigued by it. Then I started reading other people’s reactions to the book, which were disappointingly negative. This is a prime example of why reading reviews before you read a book can be bad! I let Original Sins languish on my shelf for nine months before finally making myself open it up. I ended up enjoying it very much, tearing through it in just a couple of days. I’d like to talk about the novel through the lens of the criticisms I’ve read on sites like Goodreads and LibraryThing.
First, people have pointed out that the book does not match the jacket summary provided by the publisher. With that criticism, I absolutely agree. The summary led me to expect a completely different book from what actually unfolded as I read. It’s also a prime example of why I often don’t read such summaries — they can give away far too much about the plot, in my opinion.
One of the issues I found cited frequently was a very strong dislike of the main character, Grace. She is cited (I paraphrase) as being unlikable, anti-American, snobby, overly independent, unrealistically capable, and irritatingly perfect, among other things. I will admit that she comes across as less than likable; adjectives that came to mind when I first met her included haughty, superior, and disdainful. But she is also a foreigner, used to a completely different attitude and way of life from what she finds in her new homeland. She is proud of her knowledge and skills, gleaned from a lifetime of traveling, and is rather dismayed to find kindred spirits in American few and far between. When she meets people with whom her intelligence and beliefs are compatible, the conversation sparkles and a less abrasive side of Grace emerges. I never came to like Grace, particularly, but I do understand why she is the way she is. Goodness knows there are plenty of people like her walking around today.
Others were annoyed by the long detours into “philosophy,” meaning, I think, discussions of slavery and its supporting dogma, the moral, political, economic, and religious arguments for and against the institution. There is a lot of that, and Kingman could have written a novel in half as many pages that told the same story. But it’s obvious this “philosophy” really interests Kingman. She bases many of the arguments on documents and personalities from the time and uses the novel as a vehicle for exploring how slave owners justified their asserted rights. There were moments when I got a big bogged down in all the seemingly superfluous discussions scattered throughout Original Sins, but when they came together at the end, I was glad I had all that background.
In her afterword, Kingman makes explicit one of her motives for writing Original Sins:
“We are at a loss, from our twenty-first-century perspective, to understand how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American slave holders (among them four of the first five Presidents of the United States) justified their ‘ownership’ of other human beings. Those justifications are worth examining not only for the light thus shed upon our national past, but also because they illuminate the methods by which individuals and polities continue to attempt to maintain even their least tenable positions” (p. 429-430).
Viewed in this light, I cannot help but declare Original Sins a success.
Original Sins is a difficult novel to describe. It’s not especially plot-driven, yet there is certainly an enthralling and complex story woven throughout. I neither loved nor hated most of the characters, which to me is a mark of a very real cast. I was more invested in seeing certain principles succeed than in any particular character. I thought Peg Kingman did an excellent job piecing together a firm foundation on which she could then set her story, but readers who prefer plot to philosophizing will most likely be frustrated. I found the ending immensely satisfying, though not every question was answered. On the whole, I found Original Sins to be a very interesting novel and there are many others out there who will no doubt feel the same.
Did I miss your review? Please let me know!
Have you ever felt the need to defend a book against oft-cited criticisms?