It’s the early 19th century, and Elisabeth has lost everything in Charleston, South Carolina. With her companions—the carriage driver, her servant, and her dog—she has set out for Ohio, where she hopes to stay with family. When they are unexpectedly caught in a storm, they stop at a plantation called The Cedar for shelter. The owner of the plantation, Vesper Bodes, reticently takes Elisabeth in, and their attraction for each other quickly becomes apparent.
The history of The Cedar and the Bodes family name unfolds through the first half of the book, interweaving its history with Vesper and Elisabeth’s relationship. This slow relating of events covers the ground of about two centuries’ worth of history, with the arrival of Vesper Bodes’ distant immigrant relative from France through the American Civil War. Carmen Butler is clearly familiar with South Carolinian history and seemingly touches on some important historical events to tell the story of the Bodes family. The Cedar itself is the constant throughout the story, the touchstone, and it almost becomes one of the characters.
While there is detail in the first half of the novel involving the Bodes family from their arrival on American soil, the majority of the book follows Vesper and Elisabeth’s lives. Their romantic relationship is troubling to read, as their motives towards each other are often unclear and frustrating. Butler was evidently passionate about this project, though perhaps the epic is too expansive, which leads to repetitious passages and unnecessary details. The dialogue at times feels stilted, and the stereotypical dialect of the slaves on the plantation is difficult to read. The book, written originally in 1965, feels outdated today.
A mostly engrossing read, but not likely to be appreciated by someone with little to no interest in South Carolinian history.