From the New York Times, "Tale of a Puerto Rican Plantation Mistress," Book Review by Gaiutra Bahadur: If the American South had Scarlett O’Hara as its Civil War antiheroine, the English-speaking Caribbean of the 1800s had Annie Palmer. The real-life mistress of a Jamaican sugar estate during the final days of slavery, Palmer was the subject of legend and many lurid novels, most enduringly 1929’s “White Witch of Rosehall.” Lore says (most likely inaccurately) that Palmer practiced obeah, or sorcery; bedded slaves, then killed them; and murdered three husbands. She set the standard for cruelty and debauchery in a woman presiding over a plantation.
In fiction, plantation mistresses have tended to be either unbridled despots (often with a touch of the “madwoman in the attic” à la “Jane Eyre”) or demure creatures who stay in the Great House, civilizing everyone in and around it. Esmeralda Santiago plays with, then capsizes, these caricatures in “Conquistadora,” which she has set in mid-19th-century Puerto Rico. Like Palmer, the novel’s heroine, Ana Cubillas, ends up a widow running a sugar plantation who becomes romantically involved with an overseer. Ana doesn't literally kill her husband, Ramón, though her mother-in-law makes her feel responsible for his death. Ana did, however, flatter him into leaving their pampered life in Spain for empire’s fatal edges. She married him because his family owned a plantation on the very island where, three centuries earlier, her illustrious colonizing ancestor had landed with Ponce de León. Ana believes it’s her destiny to seek her own greatness in Puerto Rico. Later, her husband claims she “bewitched” him into going. The “white witch” stereotype sticks to the hem of Ana’s skirt like cane-field mud. When she extols the healing powers of herbs, learned from her slaves, another character charges, “That sounds like witchcraft.”
But Santiago’s plantation mistress isn’t a shrew who derives sadistic pleasure from flogging her slaves. Nor is she their ministering angel, although she tends to the sick and oversees baptisms and prayers. Ana is something much more elusive and contradictory. She delegates the flogging, but flinches when the slaves scream.
Santiago, who was born in Puerto Rico, chronicled her personal struggle with a controlling partner in the memoir “The Turkish Lover” and has written before about strong-willed women trying to break free from machismo’s grip. In her previous novel, “América’s Dream,” a housekeeper flees an abusive relationship by emigrating. The Ana of “Conquistadora” is a feminist before her time. She is resented by her parents for not being the male heir they desired. Their private succession crisis overlaps with a bloody, public one — Spain’s Carlist wars, fought to allow a woman to inherit the throne. As that conflict unfolds, Ana makes furtive love to her friend Elena at their convent school. (Santiago, fancying symbolic if unsubtle names, calls it the Convent of Good Mothers.)
A side benefit to Ana’s marrying Ramón is that she and Elena can continue with their affair, as Elena has long been promised to Ramón’s twin, Inocente. But that plan goes awry as the twins, who finish each other’s sentences and enjoy watching each other have sex with the same woman, both fall for Ana. They follow her to the plantation, and when Ana gives birth, it’s unclear who the father is. The plot turns, sometimes improbably, sometimes predictably. There’s a good deal of soap-operatic excess in “Conquistadora,” including some sensational fights between Ana and her mother-in-law.
The book’s strength is its Rubik’s Cube portrait of Ana, an unconventional, ambitious woman whose attitudes toward children, slaves and lovers perplex and engross. She isn’t much of a mother, but she takes in a humpbacked baby girl abandoned on her doorstep the same day she trades her own son away in order to keep running the plantation. She’s a liberal mistress, expressing interest in the African songs her maid sings and allowing the slaves’ midwife to deliver her son. (“We all look and function pretty much the same down there,” she declares.) Yet she achieves freedom by exploiting those who, starkly, lack it. Noting that none of her slaves have challenged her, Ana reflects: “But of course, they could. . . . She would, if she were one of them.”
Is Ana believable? Santiago herself has asked that question. “I worried that I was creating a character who would have been impossible in that time and that place,” she said in an interview on her publisher’s Web site. In fact, a small percentage of women did own or control plantations in the Caribbean. Whether the obstacles they faced in a world dominated by white men sensitized them to the oppression of slaves is another question entirely. White women in the 19th-century Caribbean were largely silent on the subject of slavery. Most who spoke publicly, defended it. With her tough portrait of a female planter, Santiago speculates, charitably but unromantically, about those who didn’t speak. Ana is emotionally intelligent enough to imagine how slaves might feel, to understand their longing for freedom, yet ruthless enough to use and punish them in order to flourish herself. Neither white witch nor angel, she is convincing despite her contradictions — indeed, because of them.
Annie Palmer’s Rose Hall plantation is now a vacation resort, offering a chance to tee off on the White Witch Golf Course or exchange vows in front of the Great House. Many historical novels function this way, too, mingling levity with solemnity, turning fact into entertainment. “Conquistadora,” for one, presents a guided tour of the history of sugar and empire. Santiago takes us through events of the past as if they were rooms, narrating the cholera epidemic that ravaged Puerto Rico in the 1850s here, depicting the secret abolitionist societies active in San Juan there, and, over all, divertingly evoking a place that was one of the last holdouts for slavery in the Americas. (source: New York Times, 15 July 2011)
Conversation: Esmeralda Santiago, Author of 'Conquistadora'