By: Frances Milton Trollope (1779-1863)
The novel begins with the arrival of a family staking a claim in the black delta of the Deep South. Whitlaw is a brutish sort who bullies his cowering wife into working herself to death. Shortly after giving birth to a strapping man-child, the wife, Portia, dutifully dies. Her sister-in-law, Clio, takes over the responsibilities of raising the young Whitlaw and tending to every need and whim of her brother. Jonathan Jefferson grows up to be shrewd, conniving, and sly, driven – as Trollope thought most Americans were – by a compulsion for financial success. He and his father build up a prosperous store, selling to boats coming down the Mississippi. Jonathan meets Colonel Dart on one of his river trips, who decides to mentor him into becoming his personal confidential clerk. Translated, this means that Jonathan will be expected to spy on the slaves to make sure that they are not slacking, stealing, or conspiring to murder the Dart family. Once the Whitlaws are resuscitated in an area called Mount Etna, near Natchez, they meet the Steinmark family. These are immigrants from Bavaria who are in Trollope’s story as exemplars of farmers who can run a large, successful operation without slaves. The Whitlaws look down on them because according to their code, having slaves is a status symbol. To the Steinmarks, having slaves is an abomination against God, and at risk to their own lives, they give sanctuary to slave refugees.Jonathan’s philosophy is that in America, every man should be free to do whatever he pleases. Accordingly, he is quite the hedonist. Of course, slaves are not considered men, and white women are not considered a part of mankind. He is rather astounded then when Steinmark’s only daughter, Lotte, refuses to marry him. Piqued, he intends to take by force Phebe, an attractive, light-skinned, devoutly religious young slave. His efforts are thwarted by Old Juno, the ancient slave matriarch of the plantation. She is able to control Whitlaw through his terror of her supernatural powers.