She Would Be King By Wayétu Moore
Minneapolis, MN; Graywolf Press, 2018, 312 pp., $26, hardcover
Reviewed by Amy Watkin
In the early nineteenth century, Liberia was known as Monrovia. It is one of only two countries in the world founded and colonized by a political power (in this case, citizens of the United States) for the former enslaved people of the same power. Monrovia is the heart of the “send them back” movement led by the American Colonization Society to help usher free black people “back where they came from,” ignoring the fact that not all enslaved people were from that nation.
In She Would Be King, Wayétu Moore dives into this history in a way that folds into the plot seamlessly. Readers need to know the history of Liberia, and Moore knows that many do not, since it has not been a part of Civil War and slavery units in American History lessons. Moore presumably shares the information at least in part so that readers can begin to comprehend the gray areas of power and skin color that existed there.
The first part of the book is divided into sections, one for each of the three main characters. Moore is masterful at leaving a bit of a cliffhanger at the end of each section so that readers clamor for more, before wrapping us immediately in the story of the next character so that we nearly forget the other characters exist (except for the clever parallels that Moore draws, particularly between the female characters that so deeply influence the trajectory of the plot).
In the early 1800s, Gbessa (pronounced Bessah)—our first main character—is a young girl growing up in a Vai village in Monrovia. Born on a cursed day with “oil-black skin” and red hair, Gbessa spends her childhood listening to villagers chant “Gbessa the witch” and waiting for her thirteenth birthday, when she will be taken to the forest to die because she is cursed. The day finally comes after Gbessa has made a friend, a boy named Safua, who is newly initiated into the Poro society of leaders and warriors and sure that one day he will be king. He promises Gbessa that he will spare her life. She is left in a cave in the forest, surviving on food Safua secretly provides until she learns how to be a part of the nature surrounding her. She saves herself, singing, “‘Fenge, keh kamba beh. Fenge, kemu beh.’ We have nothing but we have God. We have nothing but we have each other.” Meanwhile, Charlotte “Emerson,” an enslaved young woman on the Emerson plantation in Virginia, is very like Gbessa. Both young women feel persecuted yet invisible at the same time. Both commune with nature in particular ways, and both are kept from speaking their minds by forces larger than themselves. Charlotte fails to protect a younger slave and is forced by her slave community to live in an abandoned slave cabin. After months of solitary confinement, the slavers one day throw in a man named Dey.
It felt good to me to say his name. That night, when I was finally quiet, Dey held up the lantern beside the burlap sack as I lay down. He set it between us, so the light swayed against his jaw. Scars covered the round curves of his arms, his head pressed against his praying hands as he searched my eyes, in that musical way he did, and I was seen. He could see me. And I could see him. And finally, I knew. I knew who he was, deeply.
Part of this knowing, this deep-seeing knowledge of another human, comes from using that person’s true name. Being known means being called by your name. Charlotte and Dey’s remarkable union produces a son, known to others as Moses but only as June Dey to readers in an example of Moore’s emphasis on names. In this section the emphasis reminds us that masters conferred names on slaves, an important step in erasing one’s culture. Elsewhere in the book we see that names offer insight between public and private personalities, between personas that feel powerful under one name but limited under another. June Dey finds strength just at the moments when others would undoubtedly die, and must search for the circumstance in which his powers are put to their best use, as Moses or as June Dey. Very few characters know that Moses is also called June Dey, so readers who know him primarily as June Dey have a window into his abilities that characters who only know him as Moses cannot access. It matters what we call people.
Our third protagonist is Norman Aragon, born in Jamaica to a Maroon mother and a British father. We learn later in the book how Norman’s life coincides with Gbessa’s and June Dey’s, but Norman’s background and young life play a key role. Precocious and very attached to his mother, Norman is always too Other to be accepted by any groups on the island. Norman’s mother fantasizes about Freetown in Africa, the Sierra Leone city founded by former enslaved Americans, but conflicts between the Maroon people and British forces, between Norman’s mother and father, between magic and denial of magic, separate Mother and son, leaving Norman on his own.
With only books from his father and a gift for disappearing from his mother, Norman must find his way to the place his mother dreamed of.
Moore’s writing is a fascinating mix. On the one hand, this book is historical fiction carrying the full weight of the past for people of color that has been buried—or at least disregarded—by dominant cultures for so long. The novel also feels like speculative fiction, as Moore crafts parallels between this nineteenth-century world and our own. Characters might be in very di fferent circumstances in the twenty-first century, and yet themes of invisibility, white society’s disrespect for others’ cultural heritage, underestimation of the powers held by certain people of color, and the shame, abuse, and low expectations heaped on women are easily found today.
Moore’s book is also magical realism, or maybe just magic. Please believe me when I say that in this review I am giving you the skeleton of the story and leaving the magic for you to discover when you read it. Moore’s words were spellbinding to me, as surprising as they were enticing, as in this passage where the main characters, the magical forces, and the cultures collide and cooperate to conquer:
They were together now. It had begun. I dwelled in that hiding place with the three of them that night. However present the stronghold of loneliness had been on each of their lives, there lingered a hope that perhaps one day they would find others. In that moment, hope’s shell melted, and it extended its limbs and breathed, became real. Became true. Alike spirits separated at great distances will always be bound to meet, even if only once; kindred souls will always collide; and strings of coincidences are never what they appear to be on the surface, but instead are the mask of God.
While two of the three main characters are men, and scenes like the ones surrounding this passage read like the most sophisticated Marvel movie you’ve ever seen, it is clearly the gifts of women that readers and characters are to revere and follow. Gbessa herself is like a combination of Hermione Granger, Queen Elizabeth I, and Janie Crawford. June Dey and Norman Aragon both acquire powers and wisdom from their mothers and other women in their lives. As Gbessa concludes at one point, “perhaps everybody, in their own way, was either a witch or the king who loved her.”
The final section of Book One (essentially the first half of the book) is itself called Monrovia, and there we see the story of Liberia, and begin to learn why this country is the pivotal setting for Gbessa, June Dey, and Norman Aragon to meet. The plot I have revealed to you here is only really the first half of the book. I leave the rest for you to discover on your own, because you shouldn’t be deprived of the gasping, heart-filling journey that is to come. The wind is a character and sometimes narrator in She Would Be King, guiding, counseling, pushing, and comforting characters. I won’t spoil for you the joy of learning just who the wind is or what role she plays; suffice it to say that she has her work cut out for her, bringing together disparate characters from all over the world in this novel full of magic.
Amy Watkin is an Associate Professor of English and Women’s and Gender Studies at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. She is currently working on a historical fiction novel about Constance Wilde, wife of famed writer and gay icon Oscar Wilde.