Look to the Hills

Now we’re into serious Deep Cuts territory, very deep into the canon. This is For Serious Fans Only.

Look to The Hills: The Diary of Lozette Moreau, A French Slave Girl: New York Colony, 1763, Patricia McKissack, 2004.

lozette moreau.jpg

Now, okay. It pains me to say this because I really love Patricia McKissack and I think she’s great. (I would have liked it better if they had more than one author to write about black characters in Dear America, but she was the only one until the rebooted editions, when they had a story about a girl at an integrated school in the 1950s.) And I enjoyed that it covered a different aspect of the French and Indian War, even though it takes place the exact same year as Standing in the Light (which is a pretty standard captivity narrative, that I’ll get to in a different entry). But. But.

This book is just not all that interesting. I know. I hate it too. But it is dull. And it has no reason to be, because it’s a really thrilling story, with a lot of real-life influences, and a lot of really interesting reflections on slavery and freedom, but it just never really comes together and sings. All the components are there—interesting and flawed characters, an engaging story, deep thoughts. It just doesn’t quite cross the barrier, which is a real shame.

Lozette is a twelve-year-old slave to a French family in Aix-en-Provence, and has been raised in their home as a companion to eighteen-year-old Marie-France. She has been brought up to be Marie’s confidante and personal maid, but the family has fallen into financial trouble with the death of their father, meaning that all the property has been transferred to Pierre, Marie’s brother, and he plans to sell Lozette. He plans to marry off Marie to a banker, but Marie doesn’t want to be married—instead, she is one of the best fencers in France.

Lozette, or Zettie, had been brought up to think that she was free, in a way, even though other slaves have been telling her for years that just being a favoured slave doesn’t make you any more free. Her mother was captured and Zettie was born aboard a slave ship, knowing nothing about her family or where she’s come from. Now she’s faced with the realization that just being a favourite doesn’t make her free, and she’s going to be just as much a slave no matter what. Marie is coming up with a plan to save them both, though, and it has to do with her other brother, Jacques, who joined the French army and was packed off to America to fight in the wars there.

Marie begins to prattle on about the previously-hated banker, but it’s all a trap—when she’s on her way to the banker’s home, they’re “attacked” by “bandits,” who steal away Marie and Zettie, but the bandit is actually a friend of theirs in disguise—Saint Georges, another premier fencer. He tells Marie that Jacques wasn’t killed in a battle like they suspected, but was actually held in captivity amongst the Indians, and refused to leave when they had the chance. So Marie changes her mind, and says she’ll go to America to find him if she can and rescue him. So they head off to Cadiz, in Spain, and from there to Cape Breton, where they learn that the French and Indian War is actually over after seven long years. Bad timing.

They’re under the protection of Senor Ortega, a Spanish merchant, who agrees to allow them to stay there with his wife, Carlita, who dislike Zettie right off the bat for being disobedient. Marie meets with several other trappers and general people there, and this entire section of the book really just functions as the basics of what the French and Indian War was all about, and who fought in it, and where, and when. They pack up to go to Fort Niagara, Marie and Zettie and Armand and Paul Joseph (the latter being fur traders), and Captain Woolridge (a military captain who’s pretty keen on Marie), and they set off to Fort Niagara.

Once there, Zettie meets Lemuel, a black drummer in the French army, and Sally, a white indentured servant whom Zettie has to share a teeny little room with. Zettie learns from Sally all the stuff they need to do to keep the fort running—all the fetching and carrying and washing and mending and other crap that needed to be done all the time. But in the meantime they have time to see some of the sights, like Niagara Falls, and the gorge, which Zettie thinks is beautiful beyond anything she’d ever seen in France. (Probably true.)

Marie asks everyone if they’ve heard of a Jacques Boyer, but no luck anywhere. She does meet Molly Brant, the wife of Sir William Johnson, the superintendent of Indian Affairs, and she is very taken with Molly—a smart and savvy woman in her own right. But Marie still can’t quite grasp that Zettie wants to be free, and is actually offended that Zettie wants to be free of her—like she’s so awful, and Zettie can’t convince her that it doesn’t matter who she was enslaved to, there’s no way it would be better. I like this point—it’s one that doesn’t come up very frequently, and I think it has a lot of modern analogues. This is one of the great points of the book—that slavery came in a lot of different styles, and it wasn’t confined to field hand labour in the American South, and that even relatively decent treatment didn’t make the absolute inhumanity of it any less. I think this point could have been slammed with even less subtlety, but it’s still great.

Sam declares to the girls that he’s going to run away, and shortly after he does fighting breaks out again in the country. But some of the fur trappers coming into the fort say that they found Sam’s body in the river, and that he died from a snakebite with no one to help him. While they grieve for him, they’re also busy with fighting creeping ever closer to the fort and soldiers growing more and more concerned about their future. Marie, though, has both Captain Woolridge and Armand vying for her affections, which keeps her on her toes. But some man named Sullivan insults Marie’s brother, calling him a traitor and a coward, and Marie has no choice but to challenge him to a duel.

Zettie has to be Marie’s “second,” or the backup dueler, since she’s trained as a fencer with Marie since she was a young girl. Marie is terribly sick the day of the duel, and Zettie has to fight Sullivan’s second, which she does beautifully and wins in a heartbeat. And they hear that Jacques has been found as well, so Marie can barely wait until she’s well to find out more about her brother. But before she can, Pierre shows up at the fort! They have a hearing to determine who Zettie belongs to, but a group of soldiers who have taken to Zettie for reading and writing letters for them take up a collection and buy her—but they don’t free her.

Lemuel goes off to fight, and they hear from stragglers that the fighting was bad and bloody and they worry over him. Turns out he was fine—fell over the cliff and was saved from certain death at the bottom of the gorge by the strap of his drum catching on a branch, allowing him to crawl back to safety. Marie hears that Jacques is being held as a prisoner of war by the English and wants to go and rescue him, but then she hears that he has an Indian wife and two children—Pierre decides he wants nothing to do with the rest of the family, but Marie is going to get her brother back even if she has to bring his whole family with him.

Marie turns nineteen, and Zettie thirteen, but mostly things go by pretty quietly in the fort without too much drama or strife. Jacques is brought to the fort for his trial, and explains that he never lifted a finger against the French army—he was just living peacefully with the Indians as best he could. They opt not to turn him over to the French authorities, so he goes free after all. And then at Christmas, Marie tells Zettie that she’s going to free her on January first, so she can be as free as Jacques or any of the rest of them.

Rating: C-. I wanted to like this book so much. I did! But like I said, it just never really connected the dots like McKissack’s other books did, which is such a shame. I think part of the problem is that Zettie’s voice never sounds authentically like a twelve-year-old, but like a grown woman reflecting on her time as a youth. Which could have really worked, in its way, but maybe not for a Dear America book. It had so many good components—great reflections on the nature of slavery and how painful it was even when the conditions were relatively decent, for example, which is a great point. And I liked that all the characters had good and bad sides—although Zettie herself really didn’t have any flaws, which is a point against. And the story here felt like it was fighting itself a bit—whether it was a story about Zettie’s fight for freedom, or about Marie’s family strife, or the French and War, or all three. There isn’t quite enough space to get all of the stories told, and it ends up suffering in the meantime. All in all, as much as I really wanted to like this, it wasn’t great. The redeeming factors included the terrific writing and good characters, but it doesn’t add up to a cohesive whole.

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