Verdict: THAT WOMAN, Wayne Clark’s tale of forced servitude and revenge in pre-Revolutionary War New York hums with injustice, and the reader thirsts for the violated character, in every sense of the word, getting even. Along the way, Clark makes New York City, already a money-drenched melting pot, as much a character as any of the participants.
THAT WOMAN, Wayne Clark’s tale centers on a 17-year-old female forced into indentured servitude, and treated in every possible way, as the “master’s” “property.” Once freed, she seeks pay-back amidst the hard-scrabble, impersonal, money-obsessed New York.
Because of the brutality of slavery, the institution of indentured servitude is usually treated as much more benign, even beneficial to said servant. The promise of service earned the worker passage to the New World, with its fluid class structure, they otherwise could not have afforded on their own. Unlike slavery, the period of servitude was limited. Moreover, because, more often than not, the indentured servant belonged to the same race–white–as their “master,” there was no justification on the part of the latter to treat their workers as sub-human.
In Clark’s hands, indentured service possesses all the brutal features of slavery. As with the Africans seized from their families by Europeans, the 17-year-old Sarah, and her 19 year-old-brother are torn from their father in France, impressed into indentured servitude, and taken across the ocean to New York City. Despite being educated and skilled (she serves her sentence as a book-keeper), the all-too-common fate associated with black female slaves is visited upon Sarah when her merchant “master” rapes her for two years. The smugness, expressed even today, by the North that they were more morally clean than the South because they didn’t have a slave system is demolished by Clark’s portrayal of indentured servitude.
Once “free,” Sarah plots her revenge against her rapist and the outraged reader roots for her. Like Raymond Chandler’s LA, the city that serves as a backdrop is as much a character as any of the participants in the novel. Already colonial New York is fitting the stereotype that even lifelong residents today accuse it of being: cold, uncaring, greedy, and subscribing to an economic version of Social Darwinism, where one’s status is determined by the size of their wallets—or, to be more contemporary, their “purses” (Southern intellectual defenders of slavery in antebellum days made the same points about capitalist New York, arguing that their system was much more caring because slaves were “family members,” and thus treated with love).
New Yorkers countered that their system was much more democratic in that anyone, regardless of station, could become rich through their own labors. But even a cursory glance at the features of the region revealed that slavery wasn’t used, not because of any moral reasons, but because it was not a money-making proposition. With its cold climate, no crop could be grown (by contrast, the South grew rich from its semi-tropical weather hospital to growing cotton and the addictive tobacco), and thus other ways of making money had to be found; the solution was found in investment and ship-building.
In Wayne’s skillful hands, colonial New York may remind readers of modern-day China. As with colonial New York, China has today adopted capitalism with its more brutal features while still retaining the repressive controls of Communism. Readers, particularly Northern ones still nursing a grudge about the South, may object to Wayne’s uncompromising attacks on indentured servitude and New York City. But if it is possible for them to shelve their shop-worn Northern prejudices, they will carried along in an effective tale of revenge.
~Ron Capshaw for IndieReader