I have no memory of this book, but it’s a Civil War book so I imagine it’s going to be a great big bundle of presentism and irritating bits about race all wrapped up with a poorly-thought-out romance arc.
Book: Emily of the Wild Rose Inn.
At the beginning, we learn that Emily Mackenzie is the current sixteen-year-old resident of the Wild Rose Inn, as is the sixteen-year-old Lucy Sykes, a black girl who is Emily’s best friend slash foster sister. Apparently a scarlet fever killed both Emily’s mother and Lucy’s parents when they were three, although exactly how Lucy came to live with them is not made clear.
They’re out sailing, as is Micah Handy, the current Handy son, who seems to be just as arrogant as the rest of the Handy clan. Although the Handy’s inn seems to have experienced a rapid turnaround, since they’re doing quite well now, and Micah is out in his own sailboat showing off to some other girls. Emily is apparently not the sailor she thinks she is, since the boom clocks her and knocks her right into the water. Lucy rescues her and their talk turns to abolition, as people frequently do when they have nearly drowned, and they see a flag back at their inn signaling that they’re needed at home. I’m sensing a theme here that 16-year-old girls are not keen on doing their damn work.
They head back to meet Emily’s older sister Lavinia, who is married to a whaler and expecting a baby, but a bounty hunter accosts them in the street and accuses Lucy of being a runaway slave. Emily tells him off and they head home, and I have a feeling this will not be the last we hear of this bounty hunter somehow.
When they get home, they’re surprised to see A Very Hoity-Toity Couple and their son making snot faces at everything around them. These are the Stockwells, who are visiting from Virginia, and they are here to be the villains for this book. I mean, to stay for a visit. I’m choosing to believe that they were named the Stockwells because they’re you’re basic stock Plantation Owner characters, but I’m probably hoping for too much here. Mr. Stockwell is needlessly and ridiculously cruel, Mrs. Stockwell is delicate yet shrewish, and Blount, their son (please God, let “Blount” be short for “Blunt” as in “this is a pretty blunt characterization, but again: hoping too much) along with Moses, their teenage slave.
Now, on an interesting note, I can wonder if Moses was named after Mose, who is the body servant of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind and plays a similar role to Moses here (brought up with the son from a young age), but that’s probably too obscure a reference for this book. As we will learn, this book is not in the business of subtleties. This book is in the business of Blatantly Obvious Stereotypes and thus falls into the same trap as zillions of other Civil War books. Everyone in the North is a red-hot abolitionist and violently opposed to slavery, everyone in the South is a wealthy slaveowner, there is no such thing as subtlety, etc.
Anyway, Emily is pissed off that Southerners are staying at their inn, even though I find it extremely hard to believe that this is the first time Southerners have stayed there, but whatever. But she clearly finds some consolation in Blount, who is apparently quite attractive, and asks her to teach him how to sail. But his parents are, of course, assholes, and complain that the inn is noisy and the town smells like fish and Emily is disrespectful. Although all of these things are true, so. Emily bitches and moans about how rude they are to Moses, and what’s also unclear is why they brought their teenage male slave along with them in the first place if they’re just going to complain that he doesn’t do a good job of serving them at the table.
That evening there’s an abolition meeting at the tavern (of course, how convenient, let’s return to Basic Civil War Plot Point 1: All Northerners are red-hot abolitionists without a racist bone in their body) and Blount crashes it, talking about homegrown tyranny and other such nonsense, and then Micah Handy wanders in for no other reason than to break up the party. Nothing about this makes sense. And then the next morning Moses is eating pancakes in the kitchen, and Emily tries to joke with him, saying, “Hey, am I going to get any?” and is totally bewildered when he practically chokes himself standing up and getting away from the table. Emily, you moron, do you really not understand why a slave is not going to be comfortable with some random white girl teasing him about food?
Lucy tells her that Moses got a beating the night before from Mr. Stockwell, and Emily’s response is “Well, eat as much maple syrup as you want,” and Lucy gives her what I can only imagine is a hilariously skeptical look. And then when Lavinia sends Emily out to wash some clothes, Emily screw off to go sailing with Blount. Emily is not winning any points here on the high ground. Blount continues to flirt with her and be all charming and flattering. Meanwhile, Lucy is at home spending the entire day flirting with Moses and learning what horrible people the Stockwells. Emily is horrified that Lucy is falling in love with a slave (because she’s afraid Lucy is going to have her heart broken, to specify) and Lucy, I can only hope, gives her another one of those hilariously awful looks.
The following day, Emily corners Blount and starts asking him a bunch of really pointed questions, like “Why do you need slaves?” and Blount points out correctly that yesterday while sailing she didn’t want to talk about slavery. And then he goes on for a bit about how cruel and awful slavery is (so you can tell he’s a Good Southerner, the kind that hates slavery) and then follows it up with a bunch of racist claptrap about natural inferiority, and then completes the hat trick by slamming Southern girls for being fluttery and helpless. Emily helps this last bit along, because why not. When they get back to the inn, Blount’s dad is freaking out that his son is going to be “entrapped by a parlor maid,” in a nicely quaint turn of phrase, and Emily still tries to defend Blount by saying “He’s not at all like them.”
The next day, Emily and Blount go sailing again, and Lucy tells Emily how gross it is that she’s all buddy-buddy with a slaveowner considering that her own damn sister is black. They also spot Mr. Stockwell striking Moses with a riding crop, and Lucy gets upset and confesses to Emily that she’s trying to help Moses escape. Emily says “It’d be like a real adventure!” and Lucy gives her another horrible look to say “are you serious.” Later that evening at home, Emily overhears her father and Lavinia talking about “making arrangements,” and discovers that the secret passageway through the house is mysteriously and suspiciously locked when it’s not usually. Hands up if you can see where this is going.
The Stockwells end up leaving to go over to the Handy inn, and Blount pays Emily some more compliments about how lovely she is and how much he wishes they can still have sailing lessons together. And conveniently that evening the minister comes by the Wild Rose for a drink, and Emily asks him all kind of carefully pointed questions about what would happen, theoretically, if a slave was trying to escape, and I wish in this story the minister is rolling his eyes at a 16-year-old girl who’s “discovering” abolition for the first time.
That weekend after church, Emily goes for a walk up Burial Hill (the same one that Ann and sexy British soldier Roger fall in love on in the last book) with Blount, who tells her that his mother used to be a lovely person before his father took one of his slaves as a mistress. Then they fall in love a bit, and Emily tells him about how awful Southerners are for profiting off slaves, and Blount points out that she’s an enormous hypocrite if she has no idea how the shipping industry that has provided her family a living for the past two hundred years has actually been a major part of the slave trade. Emily is horrified to learn this brief summation of the Triangle Trade, which I find extremely unlikely for a girl who has literally spent every moment of her life in a shipping town, and her heart is nearly broken by this news. She flees down the hill, only to see a couple of runaway slaves who have been caught by the bounty hunter, then goes home.
At home, her father and Lavinia are having a Serious Discussion, and it finally comes out that they have been helping to smuggle slaves to Canada by hiding them in their house, and a round of applause for everyone who saw this coming. Lucy has known for a long time, too, and Emily is all insulted that nobody was going to tell her, and Lavinia is like….you are a terrible liar and not good at keeping secrets, so. Lucy keeps acting very distant to Emily, who is all upset with her, and then Lucy throws some excellent shade her way by saying that she better get used to being alone because she’s not going to accompany Emily to Virginia. God, it’s hilarious. So Emily runs off to the docks to be alone, and bumps into Blount, who shows her all of the sketches he’s made of her. He walks her back home, and they see Mr. Stockwell yelling at Lucy and Moses, who are holding hands in the garden, and tells Moses “don’t bring your sluts here.” Racy talk! Emily yells “She’s my sister!” and then grabs Lucy by the hand and bolts home. Lucy is furious with her, and Emily takes off again to see the minister.
How does the inn run when one of its four employees is running around all the time doing nothing useful?
Mr. Polk tells Emily that there’s room on the ship bound for Nova Scotia tomorrow, and Emily bolts home and tries to corral Lucy to tell her the news. Lucy keeps giving her a (very well-deserved) hard time, and Lucy is all “Weeeeeell, I guess I’ll think about passing it along,” and Emily has no idea what to do with this.
The next morning, Emily is jumpy as a cat and waiting around for Trelawney, the captain going to Nova Scotia, when Blount turns up and is all “Let’s go sailing!” because they’re leaving tomorrow. Emily turns him down, then Trelawney turns up and agrees to take her “cargo,” and then Lucy is almost crying with fear for Moses. But Emily has to find a way to get Moses to the ship in time, and goes over to the Handy inn to “borrow” Moses for a bit. Blount tells her that she must “pay” in the form of taking him (Blount) for a sail, and she stammers a bit about how yes, but she needs a half an hour first to, uh, change her dress. Or something something. God, she really is a bad liar.
Moses comes out and starts wheeling Emily’s wheelbarrow down to the shore, and Lucy comes along because why not, she’s in love with Moses anyway. The bounty hunter is hanging around the dock to the ship all suspiciously, and Lucy freaks out and tells him to abandon the whole plan. Emily goes over to talk to Trelawney, but gets waylaid by the bounty hunter, who creeps on her all suspiciously about Lucy and Moses, and Trelawney ends up telling her it’s too suspicious. The new plan is that he’ll lay by for an hour that evening, and Emily has to sail him out there. The ship sails off, and Emily sends Lucy and Moses over to the shore to wait for her, and Lucy tells her that she’s going to go with Moses.
This unlooked-for conclusion sends Emily into a kind of awful tailspin, and Lucy tells her that she’s not going to live in a country that has slavery any more, and good luck and good life, pretty much. Emily goes home in tears, and Blount tries to convince himself that it’s because he’s leaving (good try) when they’re off on their sail. They spot Trelawney’s ship, and Blount goes on for a bit about “What EVER could that ship be doing? It’s like they’re WAITING for something!” and come ON, Emily, this idiot had never even been on a ship before this trip, you could just make some crap up and he wouldn’t know the difference! How can you be a terrible liar and simultaneously terrible at lying when you could get away with it? Because Emily has stupidly let Blount take the tiller, he runs them into the rocks, and Emily fakes panic and steers them to shore. Conveniently, just close to where Lucy and Moses are waiting, and once Emily and Blount are safely ashore, Lucy and Moses slink into the boat and sail for the ship. Blount spots them, tells Emily that he loves her, and Emily says that she tried to love him, too.
Then Emily collapses.
When she makes her way home, Mr. Stockwell storms in and tells Emily that he’s going to find out what she did and sue them for every dollar they have. (Good luck, sir, since they spend the majority of the book talking about how poor they are.) Blount takes up for Emily, though, and defends her, using himself as Emily’s alibi, and the Stockwells storm out again.
The next day, Emily runs into Micah Handy, who takes her out sailing to see if they can find her boat again. The end.
Rating: D. God, this book is not good. I mentioned that it hits all of the worst Civil War novel stereotypes, and the characterizations are pretty thin at best, and Emily is practically a caricature of a not-too-bright teenage girl who also lacks empathy and common sense. Everything about this book frustrated me to no end. These books are awful. Why did I like them so much????
4 thoughts on “Emily of the Wild Rose Inn”
I have to say, I would have really liked this book as a teenager entirely based on minor characters! I’d rather like to read the book about Blount grappling with a decision between his upbringing and this weird, flighty Northern girl and her tee-hee-let’s-be-abolitionists phase. I would much more like to read the book about Lucy trying to cope with her irritatingly tone-deaf white sister and making the no-doubt-painful decision to leave her. Both of those would be really interesting books.
But I guess they couldn’t have Lucy of the Wild Rose Inn or there’d be a woman of color on the cover, and who KNOWS what would happen then!!!!
You’re right, the minor characters are about 10,000 times more interesting than the actual main character, who kind of sucks in a variety of different and interesting ways. My review doesn’t even do justice to how truly irritating Emily is!
This book does sound terrible in a variety of ways, but I feel like it earns back some of its Civil War Cliche Points for having someone actually make the point that the North is built on the profits of the slave trade as well, just less directly and obviously than the South.
Is Emily explicitly tied back in to the previous Wild Rose Inn girls? I had the impression from the earlier books that they were all going to be each other’s descendants. (… I mean, all descended from the first one. Not an ouroboros of descendants. That would be silly.)
(Also: hi! I really enjoy your blog, but I’m always behind on it. Today I was moved to comment despite how late I am to the party.)
Yes, Emily is. I would have to go look to be sure, but I’m pretty certain that she’s a granddaughter/great-granddaughter of the family, but it’s through the brothers, generally–in the first one Bridie fucks off to Nova Scotia or wherever and it’s her brother who has children, and I don’t recall if Ann in the second book stays to have children or if it’s again, her brother, who has kids. But yes, they’re all related!
And you are correct about your first point! I would love it if more books made that point more explicit!