In Sister Mother Warrior, her second historical novel following the success of Island Queen, Vanessa Riley brings the Haitian revolution to life through the perspectives of two real-life women: one a soldier, the other the future empress of a fledgling nation.
Gaou Adbaraya Toya’s fighting spirit is forged in fire. She is 12 when her peaceful home in West Africa is destroyed by Dahomey warriors. A week earlier, the elders had conferred on Toya the “sanctified” status of being a grown woman, but the catastrophic loss of her village is the true turning point of her childhood, as she gains a terrible understanding: “The rumors must be true. The Dahomey sold their vanquished enemies to the white devils.”
In the midst of all this chaos, Toya decides she will become a fighter. The likelihood of being sold into slavery motivates her to join the Dahomey people and serve the conquering ruler, King Tegbesu, as a member of a select group of female soldiers. But in a horrible twist of irony, Toya’s path leads her into enslavement in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. She eventually becomes a renowned healer with an unofficial protected status throughout the colony, a warrior who fights in the rebellion and the adoptive mother of a boy who will become one of the rebellion’s most vaunted leaders (and ultimately Haiti’s emperor), Jean-Jacques Dessalines.
The second revolutionary, Marie-Claire Bonheur (later Dessalines), lives a relatively privileged life in Saint-Domingue. She and her family occupy a specific place in the colony’s stratified society. Her father is a respected free Black man who works as a fisherman; her mother is an “affranchi,” or free person of color; and her grandfather is a “Grand Blanc,” or white elite plantation owner. Darker skinned than her mother and sister, 13-year-old Marie-Claire sacrifices her precarious status—and entwines her fate with Toya’s—when, rather than solidify her family’s standing by marrying a white man, she falls in love with an enslaved boy: Jean-Jacques Dessaline. Their enduring and imperfect love is a key throughline of the narrative, bringing softness and dimension to the story.
To her credit, Riley never shies away from gray areas when depicting these incredible public figures and events. Her heroes are fallible. Toya pledges (and maintains) her undying loyalty to a king who sold her brethren into slavery; she believes that it was his divine right to do so, even after she recognizes slavery for the “slow death” that it is. Jean-Jacques grows up to become a great man, but he’s also unpitying and vengeful as a leader, and in his personal life he’s unfaithful, repeatedly breaking Marie-Claire’s heart.
The complexity of Sister Mother Warrior suits this complicated, difficult history, and Riley is successful in portraying the roles of African people within a unique and racialized system they didn’t foresee without diminishing the reality of the unspeakable atrocities committed by Europeans. Fair warning, though: The story’s complexity is at times compounded by uneven writing, which can be dense and expository, choppy and impressionistic. Riley uses first-person perspectives to place readers in the heads of her lead characters, immersing us in their thoughts and feelings. It’s effective and engrossing, especially when there’s chaos roiling outside and within, but both the subject matter and Riley’s writing style make for challenging reading. At its most opaque, the narrative mirrors the unruliness of turbulent events.
Still, Sister Mother Warrior is captivating. I sank into this one, and it motivated me to learn more about a subject I have long avoided as a Black person descended from slavery in the former West Indies. I recommend others take the same leap.