House of Rougeaux

Written by Jenny Jaeckel
Review by Janice Ottersberg

In the 18th century, Iya was taken from her African home and enslaved on a sugar cane plantation on the island of Martinique. Iya’s children, Adunbi and Abeje, and grandchild, Hetty, are born into slavery. Hetty was taken to Canada and, when slavery was abolished there, she married Dax Rougeaux and gave birth to five children who became the first free-born descendants since their great-grandmother Iya.

In seven sections, and from 1785 to 1964, a different family member tells the story of the House of Rougeaux. Iya’s life is taken by a horrible act of the master’s son. Abeje is a healer and highly revered in the slave community. Her brother Adunbi marries but loses his daughter Hetty when the master trades her for a heifer calf. This non-linear story continues with two young cousins, Nelie and Azzie, living in Philadelphia in 1949; Rosalie, a high school student in 1964; and Martine in Montreal in 1925. In 1853 Hetty is taken to Montreal, and her son Guillaume tells his story from 1883-1889. The narrative of Guillaume’s daughter finishes the book in late 1800s New York. The genealogy chart is an invaluable reference since the story jumps back and forth in time, making it difficult to place each narrator within the context of the family.

This family suffers the indignities of slavery and its aftermath while living with grace and strength through time and important historical events. I could feel their pain, fear, and heartache through the author’s intensely beautiful descriptions. For example, Guillaume mourning his wife’s death: “A long, long river of tears cut a path through the night, until the sky paled, and the bleak dawn broke, unwanted, outside the window.” I felt his all-consuming grief. The language of each narrator feels authentic, whether slave or business owner, illiterate or educated. A wonderful read.