An unlikely friendship between two young women who are cultural worlds apart is the subject of Matrinna Wood’s debut novel, I’ve Loved Before, set on a Southern plantation in the 1860’s.
Bertha, a feisty 15-year-old slave girl, immediately captures reader attention. Physically unable to work in the fields, she is transferred to indoor work in the big house, where she complains constantly and is tormented by the lighter-skinned girls. Yet, her quick wit and creativity in lessening her workload, procuring extra food and even securing a boyfriend enable her to survive the girls’ tauntings and her punishments for infractions.
The focus shifts slightly from Bertha and the slave world when Miss Julia, the plantation owner’s niece, arrives for a visit. When the pampered, imperious young woman meets stubborn Bertha, sparks fly. Feeling uncomfortable with Bertha, Julia schemes to put Bertha to work in the garden.
Unexpectedly, Julia’s plan actually builds a friendship between the two as Julia slowly appreciates Bertha’s wit, quick intelligence and ability to maintain her dignity even when severely punished. Julia’s admiration for Bertha’s ability to read, usually forbidden to slaves, ultimately proves fatal for Bertha, however, when a vindictive overseer uses the knowledge for his own brutal purposes.
Woods’ lively story vibrates with strong characters, all struggling to survive despite society’s multiple strictures. She deftly maintains a delicate balance between the serious and the light-hearted.
Unfortunately, the book’s writing style impedes reading enjoyment. Woods presents many overwritten sentences that explain what has already been obvious through her characters’ dialogue. Sentence monotony further jars the flow. (For example, on page 93, Woods begins six consecutive sentences with “Her.”) Misused words (e.g. “patients” for “patience”) as well as the anachronism of a backpack also present issues.
This is a spirited and touching story with much potential. With the help of a professional editor to smooth writing issues, Woods could have a story that ranks with the best of Southern literature.
Also available in hardcover and ebook.