Island Queen: A Novel

Written by Vanessa Riley
Review by India Edghill

It is a truth that should be universally acknowledged, that history is written by the winning side – and traditionally our history has been written by “upper-class dead white men.” Women and people of color are commonly regarded as inconsequential background, not as an integral part of history. Island Queen is a great place to start repairing this educational lack.

Island Queen covers the life of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas (1756-1846), who was born into slavery on the island of Montserrat. The daughter of an Irish planter and an enslaved mother, Dolly survived rape, incest, and childbirth while still in her early teens. She started a business; bought herself and her family out of slavery; and become one of the major entrepreneurs in the Caribbean. She had her ten children educated in England; married her daughters to well-off white husbands; traveled to England to argue for laws to protect women of color; and still found time for several lovers (including the future King William IV), while remaining married to Joseph Thomas.

Dolly was extremely influential in the fight against prejudice against people of color, and very well known in her lifetime. She is one of the many women whose stories have been lost to us, and it’s marvelous to see her life being brought back into the public discourse. The novel is written in a spare, stylized manner, and Dolly’s story is handled with a simple elegance that enables the reader to understand her life, and how impressive her achievement was in overcoming the obstacles she faced.

One thing bothered me, however: the author’s decision to elide over the fact that Dolly owned slaves. Her slave-owning is vaguely hinted at, but I’d rather have seen this troubling dichotomy in the character handled openly. However, the author’s choice is certainly understandable, and this is one terrific book. Brava, Vanessa Riley!