Her characters plucked from the pages of history, Gunning imagines the life of a young girl who arrives in the colonies with only her father, her mother and brothers having been lost on the long voyage. Indebted for their passages, Alice Cole’s father contracts his seven-year-old daughter for service, her freedom to be granted at age eighteen.
Such a life is fraught with danger, the child relying on the integrity of those who own her contract. Gunning mines fertile territory, although not with as much detail as might be expected. Alice is lucky until she is fifteen, when her ownership is transferred, a plucky, proud girl who does not suffer abuse willingly. Indeed, the slaves have far more difficult lives than Alice in the novel. Nevertheless, Gunning’s protagonist suffers for her youth and emerging beauty, a victim of a system that has little regard for the suffering of those caught up in the network of indenture.
The American Revolution simmers on the horizon as King George imposes restrictive taxes on the colonists. Alice Cole represents the disenfranchised, a class of people subjected to the shims of private ownership, subject to the whimsy of the owners of their contracts. Alice has no significance other than financial value, a girl at the mercy of a male-dominated, democratically evolving society with its eyes firmly focused on profit and growth.
Alice is like many of society’s victims: a female entrusted to the beneficence of a male master. With no power and no voice, Alice has nowhere to turn when her owner, Mr. Verley, repeatedly steals her innocence, and even his wife - Alice’s childhood friend - turns against her. Alice’s one advantage is that she is not a slave, marked by the color of her skin. She runs, stowing away on a ship to Satucket, Cape Cod, where Alice seeks to begin anew, only to find herself trapped by circumstance, her life and reputation at stake.
Befriended by an independent widow and the widow’s boarder, the attorney Mr. Freeman, Alice has at least acquired a voice to speak on her behalf in front of the court (no female can represent herself; her story must be relayed by an attorney). Facing a trial on Cape Cod and a reckoning with Verley, Alice is in a dire predicament, yet still far better off than the slaves who are bound for life to their owners.
Gunning captures the excitement and anxiety of Boston prior to the Revolutionary War, the lively discussions and growing discontent of men tired of excessive taxation and the rigors of life in the colonies, especially those in service. Once her family is lost at sea, Alice must forge her own way, depending on the kindness of masters and, later, the aid of sympathetic friends when she has run away.
As one woman seeks to tell her truth, to regain the dignity that has been systematically stripped from her, events conspire to thwart her last wish. In the end the world goes on, the innocent suffer, and the good turn a blind eye to the overwhelming burden of responsibility. A final, shocking twist, and the reader is left to ponder the unpredictability of justice and the nature of truth.
The harsh lessons of such a life are quickly assimilated, Alice a noble little soul who suspects the motives of others and only belatedly learns to distinguish between those who would do her harm or protect her. As war looms, a spirited Alice refuses to be defeated by circumstances, to live free without fear.
Comparatively speaking, it seems as though Alice faces fewer dangers than others, her sojourn on Cape Cod relatively carefree. Certainly Mr. Freeman answers the problem of resolving her difficulties. But how logical is it for such a girl to be befriended by an attorney at the first place she seeks shelter? I wish Gunning had explored indentured servitude in more depth, Alice’s options more difficult and less easily resolved. This story left me wanting more.