Review — THE COTTAGE ON THE BAY by Ruben Gonzales (Liberia)

 

The Cottage On the Bay: Family Saga of Scots Grove Plantation by the Sea in the Carolinas
by Ruben Gonzales (Liberia 1971-76)
Moonshine Cove Publishing
February 2018
282 pages
$14.99 (paperback), $6.99 (Kindle)

Reviewed by Peter V. Deekle ( Iran 1968-70)

There is a story in each of us . . . often more than one, and in Ruben Gonzales’s case he demonstrates a strong capacity for storytelling. Drawing on his keen powers of observation and, indeed, an individual emersion in a culture (honed by his Peace Corps experience, Liberia, 1971-1976) he tells a compelling story of the multi-generational Stewart family.

Ruben’s story is really a sweeping saga of the South (particularly the Carolinas) first at the Civil War’s beginning and then following the local events there into the early twentieth century.

The tale’s central character, Martha Stewart, is the unusually determined and committed oldest daughter of the Scots Grove Plantation owner, John Stewart. Martha must contend with the prevailing social mores of the time and a woman’s place in society.  She does this with a fierce and persistent determination, championing the rights of enslaved people, even as her husband, Captain Harold Thorpe, serves as an officer of the Confederacy during the war and post-war Union army imprisonment that renders him severally mentally impaired.  His condition ultimately prompts wife Martha toward a committed romantic relationship with James, a freed slave and carpenter on her family’s plantation.  The book’s title refers to the cottage beyond the plantation mansion where Martha is exiled following the birth of her only son (Randall, of mixed race, resulting from her union with James).

Gonzales uses the voices of narrators from the family (Francis, Martha’s nephew) and formerly enslaved community (Violet) to adroitly convey the personal circumstances and impressions surrounding the rapidly advancing changes in relations among the races after Emancipation.  This literary convention works well within the narrative to supply both differing perspectives and welcome historical background associated with the fictional events in Martha’s life. A helpful and needed “Principal Characters” list provides the reader with identity guidance throughout the novel.

It is difficult to find a tangible triumph amid the tragedies that confront the Stewart family.  Yet the author describes a pervasive strength that both Martha and her father possess. Surrounding them are carefully drawn portraits of family members and freed slaves, and many events that challenge them all.

Despite her withdrawal from the daily life of the manor house, Martha remains connected in her extended family, as well as the formerly enslaved plantation community.  The connections include her practice of ministering to the sick with herbal medicines and also her ambition to open a school for local black children in the Scots Grove mansion house after her father dies.

The broad appeal of this novel relies on its capacity to interweave a storyline involving multiple characters and events with references to both imagined and actual occurrences in the region.  This appeal engages the reader from the novel’s opening chapter to its conclusion.  The Cottage on the Bay demonstrates Ruben Gonzales’s talent as a practiced observer of human nature, historical context, and accomplished novelist.

Reviewer Peter Van Deekle (Iran, 1968-70) began his Peace Corps service informally in the summer of 1963, as a teenage volunteer at headquarters in Washington, D.C. From that time onward he planned to serve abroad, and joined the 20th group of Volunteers to Iran in 1968, following graduation from the University of Pennsylvania. 

Deekle has been an academic administrator in a variety of public and private colleges and universities since his return to the United States and currently, having retired to the Washington, D.C. area where he is the Community News Editor for the National Peace Corps Association. 

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