By Thomas Oliver Ott
WordCrafts Press; 2019
Genre: Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Edward Journey
Thomas Oliver Ott, in his meticulously researched historical novel, Saturday and the Witch Woman, combines his scholarly knowledge of the 1791 Haitian Slave Rebellion and its leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture; the American slave trade; and his own personal family history to craft a compelling and nuanced narrative focused on a real person, Kwambe Ansong. The name means “born on Saturday, seventh-born child” in Ansong’s native Lucumi language, but when he is enslaved and sent to Saint-Domingue – present-day Haiti, he is called “Saturday.”
Thomas Ott retired from the University of North Alabama as a history professor specializing in Caribbean history. He has close family as well as academic ties to Haiti. His book’s titular character, Saturday, with “Papa” Toussaint’s assistance, manages to smuggle two young white wards out of Saint-Domingue when their mother perishes in the Haitian rebellion. The boys, Philip and John Chartrand, are raised by Saturday as his own sons. The Chartrands are author Ott’s ancestors.
The bulk of the narrative of Saturday and the Witch Woman is told through eleven letters Saturday writes to his two “boys,” telling his life story and involvement with slave uprisings with the stipulation that the letters cannot be read until after Saturday’s death; even decades later, the letters might incriminate Saturday in life. Philip is 65 and a railroad station master and restaurateur in South Carolina when John informs him of Saturday’s passing, in Cuba, in 1850. At the time of his death, Saturday was a freed man working with John.
Philip arranges weekly readings of the letters in the presence of his wife, Susan Elizabeth, and an enslaved cook, Wahl – a woman whose experience and escape from Saint-Domingue with Philip’s uncle frequently coincide with Saturday. While Saturday’s letters occasionally get bogged down in details (a listing of “Main Characters” in the front of the book helps), they are masterful in their comingling of historical events coupled with emotional personal stories. Some stilted expository dialogue is daunting on occasion, but overall the story is told at a vigorous pace.
Saturday’s story stokes Philip’s ongoing reckoning with the role he and his family play in the evil of slavery. Philip ponders the question “Can a righteous man own slaves?” Saturday, also, questions the institution and support of slavery by those he comes to respect. Bull, the navigator of the slave ship transporting Saturday and a shipload of enslaved Africans to Saint-Domingue, protects the orphaned Saturday and another boy from the most harsh abuses of the transport. Saturday concludes that “he was a good man on the wrong side.” Wahl, on the other hand, is less conflicted, condemning slavery and all who engage in it outright – no excuses.
Saturday’s narrative does not flinch from describing the violence and sadism of slavery, starting with the gruesome details of King Bossa Ahadi of Dahomey’s dominance and cruelty on the African end of the slave trade. Saturday’s mother dies by brutal lashing in a death that is mercilessly described; other desperate captives commit suicide by swallowing their tongues. Many examples illustrate how laws are made to ensure that even if an enslaved person is bought out of slavery or freed, that “freedom” exists in name only. This is true wherever Saturday’s travels take him.
The historical details make the novel a valuable and compelling reference and resource. The reader is schooled in the evolution of the Creole language and the incorporation of African ritual to develop voodoo alongside Catholicism. Saturday, a pious Catholic, regards voodoo as “a slave victory.” The interesting reasons why the Saint-Domingue slaves were devoted to French King Louis XVI are examined. In South Carolina, the origins of the Gullah language are intriguingly explained. An in-depth insider look at the Denmark Vesey rebellion in South Carolina explores the influence of Methodism and the African Methodist Episcopal church in abolition advocacy.
Toussaint Breda, later Toussaint L’Ouverture, the calculating leader of the Haitian revolution, becomes a surrogate father to Saturday. He is presented as a wise and pragmatic leader whom Saturday compares favorably to George Washington. Saturday explores how “Papa” Toussaint “merges his secular organization with voodoo’s spiritual force” in planning the Great Slave Rebellion. Spectacular detail goes into the centerpiece of the narrative, a description of the violence and aftermath of August 22, 1791 – “The Night of Fire” and the first night of the Rebellion, in which “Mille Fleur” – the Chartrand plantation, and almost three hundred other plantations are burned, their white occupants slaughtered. Saturday manages to save the Chartrand boys and escape Saint-Domingue. When he expresses guilt over leaving, Toussaint assures him that his mission is to write the story of the rebellion. His epistles to his Chartrand charges fulfill that mission.
Ott provides interesting context to Saturday and the Witch Woman in descriptions of the time and setting for the readings of the letters in a kitchen in Branchville, South Carolina, eleven years prior to the state’s secession and the start of the American Civil War. As a “unionist,” Philip worries that the “holocaust “of the Haiti’s Slave Rebellion might portend a similar event in South Carolina. Wahl aids runaway slaves and Philip and Susan Elizabeth are suspected of lending assistance with her. Philip is disturbed by the growing secessionist sympathies in South Carolina, its rejection of his anti-slavery diplomat friend Joel Poinsett, and its deification of the fiery secessionist John C. Calhoun. The reader is stunned when Philip ponders registering as a “mulatto” in an upcoming census.
On two occasions in the letters, Saturday quotes the Yoruba proverb that states “No matter how far a river wanders, it never forgets its source.” Ott’s finely wrought narrative enlightens the reader on harsh aspects of our past, the contradictions that complicate them, and the necessity to remember. Finally, at the end of the eleventh letter, Saturday is free to sign with his authentic name; “Love to My Boys,” he writes, “Kwambe Ansong.”
Edward Journey, a retired educator and theatre professional living in Birmingham, regularly shares his essays in the online journal “Professional Southerner” (www.professionalsoutherner.com).