‘Island Queen’ by Vanessa Riley is historical fiction based on the life of a rags-to-riches story that was really slave-to-riches

Island Queen by Vanessa Riley

Those who start life with nothing and eventually become wealthy have nothing on Dorothy Kirwan Thomas, who started with less than nothing but became an extremely rich, powerful woman in her own right. How does one start with less than nothing, you might wonder? In “Island Queen,” by Vanessa Riley, we meet Dolly, as she was known, who was born a slave. Her father, the Irish plantation owner, taught her numbers and the value of money. She was determined to earn enough money to free herself, her mother, and her sister. Dolly ended up accomplishing that and much, much more.

This story is not for the faint of heart. Rape, incest, violence against women and men, wanton cruelty, the deaths of children — all are represented in events that happen in this weighty novel, which opens in 1824, in London, where Mrs. Dorothy Kirwan Thomas is trying to gain an audience with an important British official in an effort to change unfair tax laws of Demerara, a British colony. The story then takes us back in time to 1761, to the island of Montserrat, where Dolly lived with her mother, Mamaí, and her sister Kitty. It’s the night of the revolution, actually the first of many. Dolly and her family live in a hut, near her father’s plantation house.

Each chapter’s heading tells us where the story takes place and when. It’s important to keep track, because Riley takes us forward and backward in time—forward to Dolly’s mission in London—and back in time when the other part of the story takes place chronologically. Some chapters are contiguous and others skip years, so pay attention. The time division works well to enhance Dolly’s journey for us because we know that she ends up wealthy enough to be a benefactor to a school for “colored” children, while we are reading about her life of deprivation at her father’s plantation and growing up a slave. Riley lures us with the knowledge that somehow, this illiterate slave becomes an incredible success.

The story is told in first person narrative, so we know what Dolly is thinking and why she makes the decisions she does. Dolly tells us of all the myriad conflicts that she lives through, and Riley presents a huge range of conflicts, starting with the plantation on which Dolly was born. Dolly makes a huge distinction between the left and right sides of that plantation. She will only look on the right side; that’s the side with huts and homes. We eventually learn that the left side is for stocks and punishment and death. There is the conflict between Dolly and her half-brother, Nicholas, who is an evil child and grows up to be a despicable person who abuses Dolly and others. There are many more conflicts: the local conflicts between the slaves, who are desperate to be free, and the plantation owners, who need their free labor to survive and are horribly abusive to them; there is the religious conflict between the slaves who were taught Catholicism and the British who were practicing Anglicans; and the global conflicts between the French and the British, which start with the Seven Year War and continue through the War of 1812 as time goes on. And, of course, the conflict with those who are white and those who are not. The conflicts are a core part of this story from the microcosm of conflict in Dolly’s own life to the macro-conflicts of countries and religious differences.

We come to admire Dolly as we see how hard she works to earn money for her freedom and the freedom of her family. Obstacles? There are so many obstacles to Dolly’s determination to get ahead in life, including being a mother while still a child herself because of rape. Yet no matter the obstacles, Dolly’s determination to succeed drives her to work harder and be smarter. She is lucky to have the support of her sister, Kitty, and her mother. We see how the most important parts of Dolly’s life are her businesses and her family. She is completely focused on succeeding so that she will be able to protect her family, and while she has romantic relationships, she will not let those deter her from her goal.

Riley also writes of forgiveness when a former slaver renounces that business, a practice that left a stain on his soul. It’s heartrending when she writes of the prejudice that existed then, and we realize that while some things have changed, the very nature of prejudice based on the color of our skin is still, in some ways, as strong as it was then, over 300 years ago. To think that enlightenment—regarding the fact that just as different wrapping paper might hide the same gift, under our different colored skin are the same bones, veins, hearts, and minds—that enlightenment still eludes us in the 21st Century.

She writes, “Yet it was not hard to see the sneers, the fluttering of fans my dark flesh caused until my coins silenced them. Would there ever be a place where nothing but talents and love mattered?” For Dolly, even with her mulatto mother and Irish father, had dark skin. We see the difference in treatment of those whose skin was light and those with dark skin. But throughout, Dolly praises her dark, ebony skin and calls it beautiful. This is a story of subjugation but also of triumph, and make no mistake, Dolly is triumphant in the end.

This review was first posted on Bookreporter.com.