Book Review: Dreams of Savannah by Roseanna M. White

About the Book-

Cordelia Owens can weave a hopeful dream around anything and is well used to winning the hearts of everyone in Savannah with her whimsy. Even when she receives word that her sweetheart has been lost during a raid on a Yankee vessel, she clings to hope and comes up with many a romantic tale of his eventual homecoming to reassure his mother and sister.

But Phineas Dunn finds nothing redemptive in the first horrors of war. Struggling for months to make it home alive, he returns to Savannah injured and cynical, and all too sure that he is not the hero Cordelia seems determined to make him. Matters of black and white don’t seem so simple anymore to Phin, and despite her best efforts, Delia’s smiles can’t erase all the complications in his life. And when Fort Pulaski falls and the future wavers, they both must decide where the dreams of a new America will take them, and if they will go together.

My Review-

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This was an interesting book! I have read many of Roseanna’s books before (and have even met her in person once!) and loved them, so I was excited to read her new release. It was very different from her previous books, and while this one was also good, it wasn’t my favorite.

First of all, this book was set in the Civil War era, in the Confederate states. The main characters, Cordelia and Phineas, are members of two families who own slaves/plantations, who have liked each other since before the book started, and get into an “understanding” fairly early on into the book. Since Phineas, or Phin as he likes to be known, is a Confederate soldier, most of this book details the time that they are apart, and the individual struggles and growth that they go through.

With that premise, it makes sense that this book is very white focused: both Cordelia and Phineas have slaves (although they call them servants), and despite being more open to the fact that black people aren’t merely animals, they still treat their servants as below them for the vast majority of the book, which is my main concern with this book. Despite the main characters being more sympathetic to the black people working for them, they still treat them in a “less than” fashion. With that, I did like the parts of the book narrated by the black people in the story, as well as their portrayals in general: as the story develops, the humanity of the black people comes to light. Although I understood why this story was told the way it was, I’m kind of wondering what a black reader would feel like reading this book.

Moreover, this book felt quite “preachy” for a lot of it. There were a lot of “spontaneous” sermon-conversations, a la characters randomly breaking into song during a musical. There were some really /interesting/ conversations meant as “the message” that was intended to be conveyed, such as one at the beginning where Phineas asked a tall black man, essentially, “if you weren’t made to work in the fields, why do you look like that?” Again, as the story progresses, both the main characters (as well as some of the white side characters) begin to learn the value and importance of black people, which somehow wasn’t really made clear in the beginning? As someone who is not black, I can’t say whether or not that is a fair portrayal, and I understand why the story was told how it was, but at the very least, it bears mentioning.

Not only that, there was a LOT of just . . . violence. Nothing actually portrayed, but there was a lot of suggestions towards sexual violence, especially towards slaves. There was one particularly sleazy character, who was very interested in (marrying) Cordelia. While Cordelia understood that he did not have good intentions, she didn’t really try to do anything about it, other than pawning her sister off on him (since she already had a love interest)??? SO that was something that bothered me, although it was only mentioned once. Someone important to the story had also taken advantage of a black slave woman, and the resulting child was also not treated well by the man. There was also several scenes where aforementioned sleazy character pulled a girl into a secluded room and attempted to kiss her (and it is suggested that he would go farther than kissing, although it never happened). There was just a LOT of implied sexual violence that was not only unnecessary, but also A Lot to read.

As for the characters, I was honestly not a fan of the main (white) characters. The protagonist, Cordelia, was simply unlikeable, not in any particular way, but I never really connected with her. She had a very vivid imagination, and wrote a ton of stories, but that was pretty much her only character trait. Her parents were also selfish and generally terrible people (both to her, as well as to their slaves), and she really did not question it until the very end of the book. Phineas was a slightly more likeable character: his growth development was incredible, and more noticeable starting midway through the book. He did start out the book being very much a “woo confederacy” type, being excited to go into the Confederate army and kill the “Yankees that are ruining everything.” His view on slavery was very much ‘it’s bad but there’s nothing I can do about it’ and he used the excuse that Georgia didn’t allow people to free their slaves as the reason why he kept them so that was . . . Not Great. He was more likable than Cordelia, and I connected more with him in general, but he’s nowhere near my favorite fictional male characters.

The black side characters–Selina, Luther, River, and all the servants–really made the story much more enjoyable. Their characters were somehow more fleshed out than Cordelia and Phineas, and their motivations, personalities, and beliefs, were significantly more enumerated, and thus, relatable. I found myself more invested in them than the main characters, and their story was just . . . better (than overcoming racism, which was what Cordelia and Phineas were going through).

The spiritual content was very well done: there was a lot of mentions of God, and references to prayer, and just an overall spiritual focus throughout the book. Scripture was quoted several times, and in that regards, I do like it.

Overall? This was a very deep and heavy story. It meant to cover both sides of the Civil War, and to tell the story of humanity on both sides. I think it did achieve that purpose, however, I think the way it did so was lacking. There was a lot of violence and unsavory characters and situations, and while it is mostly resolved in the end, it does not mitigate the generations of suffering of black people at the hands of white people, and this portrayal is more harm than good in my opinion. Quite honestly, as I was starting this book, I expected that I would not like it as much as the author’s other works (which are among my favorite books), and I was right.

My Rating-

3/10

I voluntarily reviewed a complimentary copy of this book which I received from the author. All views expressed are only my honest opinion; I was not required to write a positive review.

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