Half-sisters Ruth and Anna have never been apart – growing up together on Master John’s plantation in Jamaica. But Anna’s lighter skin affords her privileges that are only grudging given to Ruth. Ruth knows that if she steps out of line in the tiniest way, she could put not only her mother and sister in danger but be sold on as a slave by the brutish plantation overseer, Walter. Anna is the more timid of the two, whereas Ruth is more fearless, but protective of her younger sister. Ruth has a great sense of the unjustness of life on the plantation so when she finds a slave girl about to be flogged, she tries to prevent it by throwing herself in front of the girl. Walter is enraged and Master John is forced to intervene. He decides to ship the girls to England on the very next boat for their own safety.
But England does not turn out to be the sanctuary it promised. Not only is it the climate cold and grey but the girls are left in the charge of Edith, Master John’s sister who, along with her spoilt daughter Elizabeth, does not approve of the girls at all; especially not Ruth. Although she promises not to separate the sisters, the minute Master John’s back is turned, Ruth is banished to the servant’s quarters, put to work, and exhibited as a specimen to the guests at their house parties.
Ruth’s only respite is when she meets Francis Barber who along with Samuel Johnson is visiting Master John when he is next home. Francis later takes the girls to a local tavern where they find fellow Jamaicans and an abundance of music and laughter. But once again when John has left Ruth is kidnapped and told she will be shipped back to the plantation to face Walter’s wrath. A frantic race to find Ruth ensues and it is up to Anna to find her inner courage to rescue her sister.
Based partially on real accounts this is a direct and unflinching portrayal of two sisters fighting for recognition and their freedom in a prejudiced society. Told in alternating voices the sister’s relationship is sensitively and vividly described. This thought-provoking story will do much to widen children’s understanding of the injustices faced by minorities growing up in Georgian England. A welcome addition to the excellent Voices series.