(Vagabond Voices, 2012); pbk £9.95
Chris Dolan’s new book, Redlegs, relocates from the Glasgow of his previous work, Ascension Day, to the seemingly exotic location of the Caribbean. Set in 1830, the novel follows the history of the poor whites (redlegsis the pejorative term used to describe them) as they leave Scotland to work in sugar plantations. The plantation becomes the new home of small-time actress Elspeth Baillie, and the novel reveals how her life and dreams change due to circumstances outwith her control. Elspeth, an ambitious and young actress is seduced by ”An English Lord” to leave her dreary life behind and further her career in warmer climes. As time passes, she adopts new responsibilities and becomes an inspirational if also ambivalent figure in her sponsor’s plantation. One significant consequence of her being immersed in the parochial and insular world of a wealthy landowner is that she is also trapped by her surroundings.
Set initially in “muddy” Greenock, the narrative swiftly takes the reader across the Atlantic to “sunny” Barbados. If the contrast of climates could not seem greater initially, Elspeth describing “fogs and haar dimmed her, bogs and quags pulling her down”, by the close of the book, Barbados with its colonial and slave history emerges in Elspeth’s mind as “a place devasted by rain and wind and a black, angry sun”. Young Elspeth is hand-picked by Lord Croak, a sugar plantation owner, to further her acting career at the Lyric theatre in Bridgetown. However a terrible storm destroys the theatre and takes the life of the only man Elspeth would ever love. The miscarriage of their unborn child adds to this tragedy. Taking refuge at Croak’s plantation, she gradually where she assumes the role of lady of the estate, and is later responsible for the recruitment of impoverished Celtic women as part of a eugenics type project to reinvigorating the white labour force on the estate. Her privileged position within the plantation hierarchy means that that she is also privy to its darker secrets, including the mysterious disappearances of babies that are the result of illicit relationships across the racial divide. These disappearances are shrugged off by Captain Shaw, the estate factor, who proclaims, “It is our duty to make judgements and take steps to return us to God’s original intentions.” With diminishing resources and strained relationships, Croak’s empire begins to crumble.
Conceived some 21 years ago, this fascinating story of exporting Scottish women to the Caribbean sugar plantations after emancipation is tackled in a convincing way by Dolan who guides us compellingly through the booming commerce and industry of sugar production in one estate to its downfall, sensitively unfolding the storylines of his characters along the way. Throughout the book, Dolan provides an insight into the workers’ emotions; the inclusion of letters “home” is a narrative technique which adds another layer to the storyline.
An accomplished Glaswegian author, playwright and literary critic, Dolan’s language is beautifully descriptive and evocative; he also includes Scots words to emphasise to the reader the ‘redlegs’ roots. Extracts from Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake,performed by both Elspeth and her protégé Bathsheba, born on Croak’s estate are woven into the novel’s proceedings with tragic consequences. While elegantly written in third person, the narrative thread can sometimes falter because of the density of language, the different characters and their, at times, underdeveloped storylines. More dialogue would perhaps help it flow and keep the reader more engaged.
Having had no previous knowledge of the Scottish participation in the slave trade or of their presence on the islands, I found Redlegs intriguing. The novel uncovers passion, frustrated ambitions, and desires for a New World in eloquent fashion, inspiring the reader to learn more about this significant period in Caribbean history.