Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Dessa Rose is a fictional slave narrative, the story of a strong black woman committed to fight until she and those she loves can “own ourselfs.” The novel begins with Dessa imprisoned in a sheriff’s cellar. She has been sentenced to death for participating in a revolt on a slave coffle that killed five white men and maimed the trader, Wilson, but her execution has been delayed pending the birth of her child. When Dessa is interviewed by Adam Nehemiah, her indirect answers thwart his efforts to uncover details of the revolt. A sketchy outline of her history emerges, however, and readers learn of Dessa’s harsh life on a plantation, her attack on the plantation’s mistress, her subsequent beating and sale to Wilson, the revolt, and her escape, recapture, and trial. Adam is outraged when Dessa escapes again with the help of Nathan, Cully, Harker, and the sheriff’s slaves.
Dessa wakes, disoriented, in a feather bed. She is alarmed to see a white woman suckling Dessa’s newborn son. The woman, Ruth Sutton, allows her farm to be a haven for escaped slaves. The assumption that they belong to her protects them from being caught as fugitives; they work the farm and share the profits. Ruth distrusts Dessa because of her violent history. Dessa distrusts Ruth because she is white and resents the necessity of being dependent on her goodwill. Recovering from childbirth and her long ordeal, Dessa rejoices in the intimacy created among Nathan, Cully,...
(The entire section is 614 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Williams writes in her author’s note that Dessa Rose is in part the fictionalization of two real antebellum events: the revolt of a slave coffle, ferociously instigated by a pregnant black captive, and a report of a Southern white woman who defies social dicta and dares to safeguard fugitive slaves. As the novel reinvents these historical incidents, it accomplishes two objectives. It exonerates the slaves from literary and historical stereotypes of blacks as victims, beasts, infants, and opportunists. Moreover, the novel explores the complex communal, familial, and interracial networks that functioned in—and in resistance to—the institution of slavery.
Dessa Rose is divided into a brief prologue, three middle sections of two chapters each, and a short epilogue. The prologue revives Dessa’s past, lost love. Of nearly identical length, the epilogue replaces Dessa’s memory of lost passion with a present moment of her loving and being loved in freedom. In the first two midsections, flashbacks alternate with third-person narration. Black and white, female and male, enslaved and freeborn—all these voices meander through the sections. The voices interweave in a mix of private recollection, public dialogue, interior examination, and interpersonal engagement.
The first section inaugurates a cycle of escape, recapture, and escape that subsequent sections repeat. Pregnant and ragged, Dessa lies shackled and silent in the...
(The entire section is 732 words.)
Dessa Rose is historical fiction and begins with a Prologue, a description of a moment between Dessa and Kaine. Dessa illustrates the tenderness of their love through his song, his actions, and her responses and delight in their union. This Prologue is in Dessa’s own words as she describes a scene from a moment in the past.
The story has a third-person omniscient narrator, notes from a writer named Adam Nehemiah, and first-person narration from Dessa. Nehemiah is gathering information from Dessa and others about the Wilson Rebellion for his account entitled “The Roots of Rebellion in the Slave Population & Some Means of Eradicating Them.” Nehemiah is writing a book on slave uprisings.
In the story, the fictional Wilson Rebellion takes place on a trail near Linden in Marengo County, Alabama. Five white men are killed and Master Wilson loses his arm. Thirty-one slaves are killed and nineteen are branded or flogged. About $38,000 worth of property is destroyed or damaged. Dessa attacks Master Wilson and so begins this violent event. After spending a period in jail, she is moved to Sheriff Hughes' farm to be near his cook who can also serve as a midwife to the pregnant Dessa.
Nehemiah visits Dessa to ask her questions. His previous work allowed him to interview subjects about slave uprisings in Tennessee and also in Louisiana. James Carpenter is a major landowner in Louisiana and his information foiled the insurrection. For this portion of his report, Nehemiah relies on information from Sheriff Hughes who has had far greater contact with slaves (as a slaveowner himself) than Nehemiah would ever wish for himself.
Dessa and a group of Wison’s slaves were on their way to the market to be sold. They had planned only of stunning the white men leading the group, taking their guns, tying them up and leaving; what actually happened that dark night went beyond anyone's expectations.
One of the white guards in the group was an alcoholic who was continuously raping Linda, a slave, in the bushes. On his return from the bushes, he failed to secure the chain after removing Linda from it. Someone in the chain moved and all of the chains fell away. Linda appeared with a bloody rock in her hand and the rebellion began.
Sheriff Hughes enters the cellar where Dessa is being held and Dessa moves away. A look or flicker in her eyes sets off a violent response from Hughes; he strikes her...
(The entire section is 1429 words.)