Dessa Rose, a novel in three parts, recounts the story of a young slave woman’s courageous struggle to secure her freedom. As the novel begins, Dessa Rose, the pregnant protagonist, is being held in the local sheriff’s root cellar, pending the birth of her baby, after which she is sentenced to hang for her role in a violent slave revolt. During the lonely hours of her confinement, Dessa dreams of her last days on the plantation of her former owner, Mr. Terrell Vaugham. She remembers her work in the fields and her love for Kaine, the plantation’s gardener and father of her unborn child. Much of the first section of the book explores Dessa’s preoccupation with her life on the plantation, especially the chain of events that leads to her incarceration in the root cellar.
Adam Nehemiah, a white journalist gathering information for a book on methods of preventing slave revolts, obtains permission from the sheriff to question Dessa about her role in the revolt. Dessa, however, artfully evades the journalist’s questions, choosing instead to talk about her life with Kaine on the Vaugham Plantation. By reconstructing her final days on the plantation, Dessa hopes to impose some measure of order on her past, to make sense of it. The central conflict in this section of the novel arises from Dessa’s refusal to comply with the journalist’s persistent requests for specific details about the revolt. The section ends with Dessa being rescued from the root cellar by two slaves, Harker and Nathan—an event which leaves the unsuspecting journalist and self-styled expert on slaves feeling humiliated and angry. He vows to find her and bring her back to be hanged.
In part 2, the scene shifts to an isolated farm in northern Alabama where Dessa’s rescuers take her and her newborn baby. Ruth Sutton, the owner of the farm, permits runaway slaves to live on the farm in exchange for their help with the crops. The hostility that erupts between Ruth and Dessa becomes the central focus of this section. In the pivotal scene, Dessa is outraged by Ruth’s claim that her recently deceased mammy loved her. Given Dessa’s experiences in slavery, she cannot conceive of any conditions under which a slave could love his or her master. Dessa forces Ruth to acknowledge the selfish, superficial relationship she had with her mammy of eleven years. When Ruth cannot recall Mammy’s given name, the truth of Dessa’s charge becomes painfully evident, casting doubt over her previously unshakable faith in Mammy’s love. The tension between the two women threatens to disrupt Ruth’s arrangement with the other runaway slaves.
In the final section of the novel, Harker and Nathan persuade Dessa and Rush to lay aside their personal enmity and participate in a scheme to raise money to finance the slaves’ escape to freedom. Ruth, who is desperately in need of money, is promised half the profit. According to the plan, Ruth, posing as owner of the runaway slaves, will sell them to various buyers. The slaves will then escape and meet Ruth at an agreed-upon location and be resold in the next town. Traveling together from town to town, Dessa and Ruth come to know and respect each other.
Dessa Rose is a skillfully drawn, multidimensional character. As a young slave on the Vaugham Plantation, Dessa dreams of escaping to the north with Kaine, where she hopes that they can rear their children free from the constant threat of beatings and separations that haunt slave families. Tragedy strikes, however, before she can realize her dream of freedom. Kaine unexpectedly attacks Vaugham with a hoe, prompting him to kill Kaine. As Kaine lies dying, he tries to explain the meaning of his act to Dessa. Dessa comes to view Kaine’s attack on their master as a bold act of self-liberation, an assertion of his manhood. Inspired by Kaine’s example, the normally quiet, nonaggressive Dessa Rose surprises the plantation community when she attacks her master and mistress. For this offense, she is whipped, branded, and sold to a slave trader. Although she is barely fifteen years old and nearly eight months pregnant, Dessa Rose plays a decisive role in the revolt of the slaves traveling with her en route to the slave market. Survivors of the uprising credit Dessa with killing several guards single-handedly. Thus, Dessa reaches within herself and finds tremendous resources of courage and strength.
Like Dessa Rose, Ruth Sutton is a dynamic, sensitive, and courageous woman. A native of Charleston, South Carolina, Ruth grew up in a family of slave owners. Because of her background, Ruth viewed all slaves, including her beloved mammy, as somewhat less than human. When she is abandoned by her husband, estranged from her family, and ostracized by her white neighbors, Ruth comes to depend on the fugitive slaves for...
(The entire section is 1965 words.)