In a few too many ways, it was your standard 'slavery is bad' story, and it took the grown-up route of utter ignorance in pushing that line further to say 'slavery is evil and it's inconceivable that anyone ever thought otherwise unless they too were evil humans' which is just plain modernist and pathetically essential-ist.
Yes. Slavery (particularly in the New World) was atrocious.
And Yes. To say otherwise today makes a person pretty much straight up evil.
But that is not a truism. It was not always the case that to believe in slavery as a sort of 'natural order' made you a morally bankrupt person.
That is putting a modern lens on things that modern people cannot fully comprehend. Just like a grown up does NOT genuinely remember what it was like to be 16 or to be 10, a 21st century person cannot even recognize that they are viewing history through a very rosy lens. The truth of the matter is that in 1812, slavery in some form or other had been a fact of how society functioned for over 6 thousand years and it was honestly weirder for someone to say, 'You know what? This is probably bad...' and a lot of that even had to come from how New World took the established order and heaped an unbelievable list of extra abuses onto it.
This is not to say racism, wasn't a Huge Thing (Imperialism is a very terrible thing itself, and the subjugation of others based on country of origin is a long-standing terror of our humanity), but that's a separate statement. Racism and Slavery were not intrinsically bound together outside of direct and immediate conquest. Once a new place was conquered by the Empire, the old lowest-people rose up in the ranks, and if you had enough money you could buy a slave of any race even ones theoretically high up the ladder than you.
That does, admittedly, vastly over simplify things. But I'm not trying to make a nuanced argument (at least no more nuanced than to make it clear I find both racism and slavery abhorrent).
What I'm saying here is that this story should have had a few characters, both black and white, who believed in the institutions they were raised within without that believe automatically forcing them into villain roles. Fear of change, belief in the status quo, confusion about why it mattered so much to some people... All of that should've been more prevalent in this novel.
The fact that there wasn't a single character in 1812 Barbados that fully believed in the current Natural Order who was not ultimately painted as an utterly depraved and immoral individual was just plain creepy.
The concept of slavery didn't survive for SIX THOUSAND YEARS because everyone always knew, deep down, that it was wrong. We aren't a species of creatures so heinous that we can look at something we know is wrong for SIX THOUSAND YEARS without doing anything about it.
We didn't do anything because we didn't see it as wrong.
Honestly, at the heart of it, we sorta still don't.
The concept of free labor hasn't gone away. Unpaid Internships are the modern indentured servitude. The requirement of X years of experience to allow you access to a job force you need to be involved with in order to survive is heinous.
Yes, Interns have things like rights and safety recourse guarantees and legal backstops, but they're pretty basic rights. Your employer isn't even required to feed you, they're just required to give you a bit of time not-working to feed yourself, buying food to do so with money you aren't allowed to make (only 10 minutes minimum if you're working less than 5 hours and none at all if you're working less than 4).
Slavery, through most of its history, included ASPCA levels of animal-abuse-type protections. Food, provided freely and regularly; body security and autonomy (ie, no direct injury or sexual abuses); recognition for good service and the ability to be a person with a name and a backstory and HEALTHCARE (instead of just an employee number with the last-line protection of company liability pay if you get grievously injured on the job you don't get paid for).
Were there abuses? Yes.
Was most of human history a string of abuse after abuse? No.
People voluntarily sold themselves into slavery, or at the very least, term-indentured themselves, pretty dang regularly throughout history.
Because sometimes, the promise of regular meals and decent healthcare was legitimately preferable to starving to death. Like right now.
Not kidding. There are legitimately countless studies out there of how MODERN PRISON is a preferable state of being for human than getting shunted into an unpaid internship. (Some of them are even legitimately academic and peer reviewed, but those take longer to find for free-viewing than I want to spend right now, so: here, here, here, and here, will have to do, though most of these are just about the poor ethics of the Unpaid Internship concept).
And yet, thousands of people in America alone don't see the problem with it.
So, likewise, thousands of people in 1812 Barbados should've not been able to see the problem with it. And as a pretty well-researched author, Willig should have known that and accommodated for including it.
It is NOT COMFORTABLE to be lead through a story where slavery is just okay, I wholly admit that (and am frankly, glad for it).
But literature is not supposed to be comfortable. It's supposed to make you FEEL what the author thinks you should be able to SEE, because its right in front of your face and wrong but not acknowledged.
I am not saying, in any way, that a slave-believer should have been the hero. But someone should've been, at least sympathetic, to the Status Quo.
Also, there was just such a fixation on the 'Slavery as an evil institution thing', that the little love stories didn't get much attention which made them feel cute but rather hollow. I loved the moments we got to see the two couples being cute, but they were so few and far between that I got lost.
I LOVED the comments on being so unsure of your own feelings that you make the mistake of wanting your partner to be sure enough for the both of you, but that was the only message in the story besides 'slavery is bad'.
It was good, and a great beach read. Really goo. I deeply enjoyed it.
To be perfectly frank, while reading, I couldn't put my finger on why I didn't love it. And I couldn't figure out why I didn't want to review it until I sat down and started reviewing it, (I actually read this over my little vacation in the second week in August, and put off reviewing it until a few days before you guys see this post).
But it wasn't literature, and I'm pretty disappointed in the lack of legitimate social commentary.