Title: Strands of Bronze and Gold
Author: Jane Nickerson
Genre: Historical (with minor supernatural elements), Fairytale retelling, Young Adult
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: March 12 2013
Hardcover/Paperback: 352 Pages
Seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram has been sheltered by her doting family all her life, until the day her father dies. It’s 1855, and with no money and few options, she goes to live with her guardian, the mysterious Bernard de Cressac, at the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey in Mississippi.
Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if thread by thread, a silken net is woven around her. And when she begins glimpsing the ghosts of his former wives (all with hair as red as her own) in the forgotten corners and dark hallways of the Abbey, Sophie knows she’s in de Cressac’s trap.
With enchanting romance, chilling suspense, and dashes of the supernatural,Strands of Bronze and Gold is a compulsively readable debut.
Stand alone or series: It is supposedly first in a series but this book is self-contained and can be read as stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy from the publisher via Netgalley
Format (e- or p-): e-ARC
Why did I read this book: This is a Gothic Bluebeard retelling set in pre-Civil War USA – how could we NOT want to read this?
(This was supposed to be a joint review but Thea refused to finish the book. Yes. It is that bad.)
After the death of her father, Northern Sophie Petheram receives an invitation to go live with her godfather, the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, in his plantation in Mississippi. Sophie has always longed for a more comfortable life and for spending more time with her godfather – whom she has always admired in a secretive, furtive way – and is at first, elated at the prospect. And to begin with, all goes well. Her godfather is charming and attentive (as well as extremely attractive), regaling her with his stories of the Exotic Orient and her surroundings are luxurious and decadent.
But soon she starts to realise that this new life is not perfect. Her guardian allows her very little freedom and is prone to dangerous, violent mood swings. She is also not really comfortable with the way he treats his slaves or that he even has slaves at all. Then Sophie learns of his past wives – all of whom have died tragically, all of whom have bronze hair as her own – and realises that something much more horrific is afoot and that her own life might be in danger.
Strands of Bronze and Gold is a gothic retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale transported to a pre- Civil War America. I was really intrigued about this from the get go and for its possibilities. Bluebeard is a fairytale that is extremely misogynist and sexist – one its motifs is the question of the “danger” of female curiosity, a question that fits into victim-blaming. It is also a fairytale with strong European roots.
As such, when reading this, I wanted to be able to see the issue of sexism addressed and to understand the author’s choice of moving this to Mississippi pre- Civil War. This is not a setting that can be taken lightly and above all, I wanted to see how the author dealt with the issue of slavery in this setting.
Unfortunately all of it was hugely disappointing.
Strands of Bronze and Gold has an unhurried developed story that fits not only with the gothic atmosphere of danger and mystery but also with the issue of Sophie’s slow transformation from extremely naïve and trusting to a strong-willed heroine who knows how to deal with her godfather’s mood swings strategically. This is a really interesting transformation in terms of how it addresses how Sophie – in a context of supposed powerlessness – can think strategically and empower herself by doing so. So, in a way, the topic of sexism is somewhat addressed here and I appreciated how Sophie was able to save herself in the end. The topic of female curiously being at fault for the wives’ fate is also removed here: Monsieur Bernard de Cressac is a dangerous psychopath and wholly to blame for the happenings in the book.
That said Sophie’s transformation is not really developed that well. For a story that is so slowly developed, the actual character’s arc happens suddenly and with awkward transitions. That is all the more clear when Sophie falls in love at first sight with another man – one minute they meet, the next they are in love.
Although I appreciated the attempt at portraying Sophie’s story as one of self-empowerment, I wasn’t wholly convinced by how this happened.
My main issue with the book though is the pre Civil-War Mississippi plantation setting and how this was incorporated into the story. This was bad; this was really, REALLY BAD. The book is populated with a series of POC characters, some of them house slaves, some of them cotton field ones and there is one freed slave as well. The problem is, these characters are not characters on their own and are there in relation to the white characters. Sophie for example is the Good Abolitionist, who wants to help the slaves. As such she sympathises, pities them and wants to help them. Which: fair enough. But she is so completely clueless about her privilege it is not even funny. At one point she sees slaves labouring in the cotton fields and pities them for their shabby clothes. She sees a pair of slaves who are in love and cannot get married and pities HERSELF for not having a love of her own. Priorities: she has them (not). And this could have served as an astute observation about Sophie’s naivety, except this is not questioned and only serves to illustrate Sophie’s forward-thinking and goodness. The same way that the ill treatment of the slaves serves only to illustrate the villain’s villainy.
I am not kidding, there is EVEN a Magical Negro: a freed slave who lives in the woods and who is happy, wise and helps Sophie in feeling less lonely.
There is also definitely a strand of White-Saviour approach by showing the work of Good White People helping with the Underground Railroad (but without mentioning the important work and support from freed, escaped slaves in the same).
And before anyone says something about how this is a historical novel and that the portrayal of Sophie and of slavery is historically accurate, allow me to reinforce the fact that there is a HUGE difference between writing a historically accurate character (whatever that might mean) and writing a story that does not challenge/question these views in the narrative itself. In that sense, Strands of Bronze and Gold is not doing anyone a service by portraying slavery as a Bad Thing from the point of view White Saviours and by portraying POC characters as offensive stereotypes.
This is all very problematic to say the least and tainted the whole book for me. I can not in good conscience recommend this book at all – in fact, I recommend you to stay far, far away from it.
3 – Horrible
Reading Next: Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton
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Ashleigh PaigeMarch 15, 2013 at 12:24 pm
Ana, the way slavery played into the novel is EXACTLY what one of my greatest issues with the novel was. To me, they came off more as devices use to characterize Sophie than as actual characters and that ticked me off pretty badly. I don’t even want to think about Anarchy the Magical Negro again. I loved the Gothic feel of the tale, but the slavery issue was simply too much for me.
AnaMarch 15, 2013 at 12:27 pm
Ashleigh Page – Yeah. When Anarchy showed up for the first time it was all I could do not to throw my Kindle across the room.
MorganMarch 15, 2013 at 12:37 pm
Oh, I’m so disappointed by your review! I was really looking forward to this book… still have it on hold at the library so I might give it a shot but I’m glad I didn’t buy it. I tend to agree with almost all of your reviews. Too bad this book didn’t handle these issues better, it’s a shame it took so much away from the story overall.
SheilaMarch 15, 2013 at 12:40 pm
Noooo! I thought a gothic retelling of Bluebeard would be amazing! I’m not sure I can deal with the race fail though–thanks for the warning.
Henry CircleMarch 15, 2013 at 2:12 pm
This is the book I have been waiting on forever! It can be so awkward when white authors write about racism/slavery/civil rights. The white savior thing is easiest and worst way to handle writing about the wrong-doing of black folks. (An example of a caucasian author Mississippian writing the subject heart-breakingly well: Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan.) But as much I have been dying to sink my claws into this novel, I think the protagonist would rub me the wrong way!
Linda W.March 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm
Wow. Loved the cover, but will avoid.
Renae @ Respiring ThoughtsMarch 17, 2013 at 1:05 pm
Oh dear. I’ve been nervous about this book for quite a while‚ but mostly in relation to retelling Bluebeard without a) ruining the essence of the story, or b) creating a spineless protagonist who needed saving from the men in her life (seeing that the original Bluebeard had the girl’s brothers rescue her).
The issue of slavery as an issue hadn’t occurred to me, what with all the other worrying I was doing, though it obviously should have. I’m not at all a fan of the sort of Supremely Good characterization you describe in Sophie. And the Magic Negro sounds absolutely ridiculous.
AjaMarch 19, 2013 at 12:16 am
The horrified face i am making right now. the magical negro’s name is ANARCHY? oh my god. god can we just like. institute some kind of system whereby in addition to copy editors and style editors we have, like, SOCIAL EDITORS. because seriously, how many people read this book before it went to print? HOW MANY OF THEM failed to point out all the problematic shit in it? Ugh. UGH.
JennMarch 26, 2013 at 3:19 pm
I thought this bookwas fantastic! It was slow going, but definitely a good read. Am I understanding you though, that you think this should have been more politically correct regarding slavery? Because slavery was absolutely NOT PC. The slaves helped reinforce character because M. Bernard was showing his value of life and how he treats his “property” and how Sophie was actually human and had a soul. Those ofyou that are nervous about reading it – DO IT! You won’tbe disapointed!
JayMarch 27, 2013 at 12:03 pm
This is a book of historical fiction. Complaints that it is insufficiently politically correct simply reinforce the notion that if a book doesn’t support your personal activism it shouldn’t be read.
Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn receives similar reaction from that particular school of political correctness.
The African Americans in this story are minor characters portrayed accurately and sympathetically. But if they were portrayed inaccuately and unsympathetically it would not be cause for moral outrage or the call for book banning.
I wonder if this elitist nonsense about the the character of Anarchy should have been “socially” edited if she had been an old white woman with a wart on her nose?
It’s a fine book. Read it for yourself and see.
AnonymousMarch 29, 2013 at 2:15 am
I’ve read a lot of good reviews about this book, so it’s nice to know i’m not the only one who’s not too impressed. I felt this story was too slow in the beginning, and then too predictable as it went on.
I guess I didn’t dislike it for the same reasons as you did though. I agree that Sophie’s actions and feelings towards the slaves were special. Like your comment on her feeling sorry for the slaves because they had shabby clothes. Shabby clothes don’t even make it onto a list of a slave’s real problems. But I think Sophie’s mentality does happen in real life. I think society has a habit of looking down on people with less privilege for the wrong reasons. I think this aspect at least is realistic.
But I can also see your point that the author uses these characters (the slaves) for her own purposes rather than developing her characters. So I guess i half agree with you. But yeah, I mostly wanted to say I’m glad i’m not the only one who was disappointed with this book.
BrianaJune 13, 2013 at 6:21 pm
I just wrote my own review for this and stumbled across Wendy Darling’s link to yours on Goodreads.
I was also put off by the Underground Railroad plotline, but for slightly different reasons. (I’ll just throw out there is one freed slave character involved in the Railroad in the book.) Mostly, I thought Sophie’s “I am the only character standing strong against the atrocity of slavery” attitude was completely cliche. I’m generally annoyed by protagonists in historical fiction, written by modern authors, making self-righteous speeches about women’s rights in the Middle Ages or the evils of slavery, etc. We know. As readers, we generally AGREE that women should have rights and slavery is wrong. I think we can handle it if a character has more nuanced views more in line with historical values instead of modern ones.
I’m not arguing that Sophie should have agreed with slavery, but the fact that she was so outspoken against it and gung-ho about joining the Underground Railroad was a bit forced. As a society, I think we try to apologize for things like slavery by writing protagonists who are radically opposed to the ideas. While abolitionists obviously DID exist, I think historical fiction needs more protagonists with differing views on subjects like this. It could be controversial, but it would be more historically accurate.
I agree with your assessment that the slaves were generally background characters used to further the plot or Sophie’s own character development, though.
AllTheEarthAugust 2, 2013 at 9:55 pm
1. There are, in fact, only two really deeply developed characters in the book–Sophie and Bernard. The book is about their struggle and the other characters are supporting characters, even the love-interest. I am 300% okay with that.
2. Sophie is not a White Savior. Seriously, she’s not. She doesn’t waltz in and say, “Hey, wouldn’t it be PEACHY KEEN to set up an underground railroad”? She sneaks out at night and discovers an Underground Railroad meeting, and it’s clear that she’s intruding on someone else’s world. The meeting is instigated by a freed slave who travels to the house. There is exactly one white character mentioned at that meeting (the preacher who allows his house to be used as a waystation). Sophie does exactly one thing to help them out–she warns one (black) character that his involvement in the Railroad has been discovered so that he can get out of town.
3. Not every novel has to check off a list of progressive tick-marks. Chill out.
LA KnightMarch 30, 2016 at 1:11 pm
I gave the book a 3 for various reasons, including the way the Underground Railroad/slavery thing was set up. Some things that bothered you didn’t bother me as much (Sophie being the only white person to openly protest slavery; it makes sense, b/c she’s one of the only white people we see in the book who isn’t allied with the villain. But it was still the author’s choice to put that character in that situation in the first place) but other things did. I found it a bit strange that the black woman’s name was Anarchy (I know slave-owners gave their slaves bizarre names sometimes, like in Gone with the Wind – a few of the slaves are named things like Apostle and Prophet) because that just smacked of rebellion to me and who would name someone a rebellious name if the goal was to keep them docile and obedient?
I thought, however, that for someone writing their first book, that Jane Nickerson did better with Anarchy’s character development considering the Magical Negro aspects of her character. She has her own backstory, her own motivations, her own goals, and all of these are independent of Sophie. Due to Sophie being locked up most of the time, of course we wouldn’t get to see Anarchy outside of those snuck visits (but again, this is a choice by the author and could have gone differently if she’d made different narrative choices, so still problematic).
What I didn’t like was that the whole racial thing seemed a tacked-on after-thought. Like, in this book about Snow White called Bird, Snow, Boy or something like that, there’s a lot about race because race is not just a background thing, but integral to the character development. I would’ve liked to see that here. Wouldn’t it have been interesting if Sophie’s mother had been black? Red hair (a major plot point) on a black person with white blood isn’t impossible or even that unusual depending on genetics. For one thing, this would’ve elevated the danger to Sophie b/c Bernard was racist and believed slavery was okay, and very few people would’ve been in a position to help her.
There were just a lot of missed opportunities regarding racial tension explorations of the time, here. And if it wasn’t going to be integral, it shouldn’t have been made such a big deal in such a clumsy way in the book. Especially when it was just used to show how evil Bernard is (rather like the sexual violence in the book, which has a much more minor role, but is still there to show how awful Bernard is). I feel, though, that this is a mistake made because it’s her first book. A lot of authors make a lot of mistakes in their first or second books (Tamora Pierce, for example). I’d be willing to give her another shot.
I will say, though – Sophie’s privilege regarding the shabby clothes? I don’t think it’s privilege. I think she’s just stupid. They mention she’s very, very sheltered. Once she becomes unsheltered and realizes Bernard is psycho, she stops noticing things like shabby clothes and slaves in love and starts noticing the dangers they have to deal with. It’s just a flaw in the book that it takes an old man being whipped to start this change in her. That may have been JN trying to comment on how a lot of Southern gentry were ignorant of the brutal realities of slavery and that’s why there wasn’t more outcry against it…but she didn’t do it very well. Again, seemed like an after-thought.