September Read of the Month: “Sister, Mother, Warrior” by Vanessa Riley

Vanessa Riley offers a stunning picture of Haiti’s history and founding through the eyes of several key women in her novel Sister Mother Warrior (William Morrow 2022). Riley’s superb research and careful crafting of characters bring the story of Haiti’s liberation from foreign rule to life. Riley, the 2023 Georgia Author of the Year for Literary Fiction, tells this story through rotating viewpoints of women representing a few of the different rungs of the rigid social classes in eighteenth century Haiti. People were classed as Grand Blanc (wealthy Whites), Petit Blanc (Whites without wealth), Afranchi (free Colored), Colored (mixed race), and Black.

The Black viewpoint is offered through the character of Adbaraya Toya. As a twelve-year-old in 1750, Toya is spared death and is instead taken captive when Dahomey enemies destroy her African village of Gbowele. Another girl from Toya’s village is also spared—Eghosa—and the two bond like sisters. They become Warrior Wives to King Tegbesu. Other conquered villagers who were able-bodied were sold into slavery by Tegbesu. As Toya learns fighting skills, she eventually leads the women warriors: “She swung a cutlass with abandon. Toya twirled a bayonet better than any man.” With her skill, she helps the King conquer tribes and sell the defeated into slavery. Unlike Toya, who is completely brainwashed by her training, Eghosa rebels. She wants the freedom to love and be loved. She becomes pregnant. But her lover, Nosakhere, betrays her and the whole village. Toya sacrifices herself to save the village but forces Nosakhere into slavery along with her and Eghosa. They are separated, but alive. Eventually, Toya and Eghosa end up on the same plantation in Haiti. Toya becomes known for her healing skills. She is valuable because she can keep slave babies alive, which increased the master’s profits. She is able to save Eghosa’s baby, JanJak, and she cares for him when Eghosa dies.

Another powerful viewpoint is that of Sainte. She and her sister Elise are the offspring of a Petit Blanc father and a mulatto mother. Sainte falls in love with a Black fisherman and refuses to marry the Petit Blanc her mother chooses for her in an effort to save the family from poverty. Later in life, Sainte tells her daughter that “Happiness matters. When you find your heart, you leap for it. True freedom is love, Marie-Claire.” Sainte devotes her life to feeding the poor, regardless of their social class, and to caring for the ill in the charity hospital. Her sister Elise, on the other hand, is a fine singer and longs to be on stage. Because of her caste, she is not permitted to sing the lead roles.

Marie-Claire Bonheur rounds out the main viewpoints. She follows her mother’s advice to leap for her heart. She falls in love with JanJak, (Eghosa’s now-grown child) also known as Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The couple endures many challenges and separations. By the novel’s end, General Dessalines has become one of the military leaders critical to expelling foreign forces from Haiti and establishing the nation as an independent republic. Toya and Nosakhere, despite their advanced age, join Jean-Jacques Dessalines in the battle for Haiti’s freedom. Through battle, Toya and Nosakhere seek atonement for their own roles in enabling slavery. While their ultimate goal of destroying the caste system was never realized, Haiti did end slavery and gain independence in 1804. Dessalines became emperor.

As the author tells us in a note at the end, Toya and Marie-Claire were based on real heroes of the Revolution: “Women were instrumental to winning the Haitian Revolution and fought on the battlefields and streets and towns alongside the men or in their stead.”

Sister Mother Warrior reads as a suspenseful, engaging historical novel depicting the important roles of women spanning three generations in the Haitian Revolution. It is well worth any reader’s time.

Vanessa Riley

Vanessa Riley is the author of the historical novels Queen of Exiles and Island Queen. Riley’s historical novels showcase the hidden histories of Black women and women of color. She has also authored more than a dozen Regency historical mysteries and romance novels. She holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering and an MS in industrial engineering and engineering management from Stanford University, as well as a BS and MS in mechanical engineering from Penn State. Riley lives in Atlanta.






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