Fireflies and Chocolate, Ailish Sinclair, GWL Publishing 2021 (available through Amazon)

In 1607 Jamestown was established and the early settlers soon began importing indentured European servants/laborers into the new world. The system of indentures in that period was similar to slavery, differing only in that those sold under indentures gained their freedom when they had worked off their debt. The need for indentured European laborers was, therefore, drastically reduced when black slaves, who labored for life, began to be imported to the new world.  By 1700 there were relatively few indentured laborers in the new world compared to black slaves.

The story of ‘Fireflies and Chocolate’ by Ailish Sinclair is drawn from a historical anomaly that occurred in the middle of the 18th century.  Children from Scotland were being abducted, transported to the new world and sold as indentured servants.  Sinclair introduces fifteen year-old Elizabeth Manteith, the only daughter of a Scottish noble as the heroine of her novel.  It is 1743 and Elizabeth is in Aberdeen to buy a horse when she is kidnapped and finds herself held by callous sailors on an enforced journey to the new world.  She finds a friend in Peter, another kidnap victim and together they survive the perils of the sea – everything from sex-starved sailors, storms to a shipwreck. They arrive in Philadelphia only to find themselves separated and sold in a slave auction.  Elizabeth goes to a plantation owner, a woman with a sour disposition who is seeking a housekeeper and cook for her reclusive son, housed out of the city at the family’s plantation. 

Elizabeth needs all her courage and strength to navigate the realities of slavery, runaways, a brutal overseer and the dark secret of the family that bought her.  Her goal throughout her ordeal is to find Peter and return home to Scotland.  But things move slowly in a century where letters can take months for delivery. Several years pass as Elizabeth matures and slowly begins to find her place in the new world.  Her Scottish family ties are battered when news of the battle of Culloden (1746) reaches the new world.  Her father was an ardent supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause and she fears for his life.  As Elizabeth’s indentures come to an end, the question confronting her is whether she will return to Scotland or find love and carve out an unexpected life in the new world. 

Although the publisher lists ‘Fireflies and Chocolate’ in their ‘historical fiction’ category, I’m more inclined to view it as fitting into a historical ‘young adult’ genre.  This is the kind of story that has roots in the tradition of ‘Swiss Family Robinson’ or Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’.   Ms. Sinclair writes an engaging story that is perhaps more influenced by the style of books like ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘Little Women’ – stories written in a family oriented style where the brutalities of the age are not treated in the raw and gritty manner common in many modern works.  Those who have fond memories of these old classics will enjoy Ms. Sinclair’s novel and her feisty red-haired Scottish heroine.

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