Review by Adrina Palmer
The compelling, hidden story of Cathy Williams, a former slave and the only woman to ever serve with the legendary Buffalo Soldiers.
A historical book set during the Civil War is not my cup of tea but this book, ‘Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen,’ was full of surprises and will keep you in suspense until the last page. Author Sarah Bird somehow pulled herself out of this century and the color she was born wearing, to create Cathy Williams, a slave girl freed during the tail end of the war and her epic love story. I had not expected becoming so engrossed in this tale that life became annoying. Even if this genre is not your preferred choice, try it as this tale based on a true story might just surprise you.
Cathy Williams lives with her mother and sister Clemmie as slaves for an abusive master until the Northern troops serving under General Sheridan take her to serve in their camp. In need of a new cook’s helper, Sheridan pulls the boyish Cathy from her mother’s arm to join his fight against the Confederacy in Virginia. What the General does not know is that Cathy is the daughter of a daughter of an African Queen. She is not meant to serve anyone and the cook, Solomon, has his work cut out for him trying to tame the shrew into a suitable assistant. Before arriving into the capable hands of Solomon, Cathy finds herself with a dying man on her lap for the ride to camp. Not just a man but a dark-skinned man in uniform fighting to end slavery along with the whites. For the first time in her life, she has found someone worthy of the affections of the granddaughter of a queen, just as he took his last breath.
For the next year, Cathy spends her days cooking for all the men in Sheridan’s army with few friends and few luxuries. One day, the cavalry rides in to announce the Union has seceded, and the war has ended. But America has not prepared for what to do with the slaves when they became free. Nor is the country prepared for what to do with a single female slave. Cathy – briefly reunited with her sister Clemmie – has few options until a familiar face, Sergeant Albright shows up in a uniform on a horse shouting out the need for strong colored men to join the army to fight off Native Americans and discontent factions left over from the Union. The beautiful Clemmie stays with Sheridan, replacing her sister as an assistant cook. Cathy sees an opportunity to work for a few years and earn enough to start her own business if she joins the army the only way she can…as a man. Her deep-seated need to figure out who Sergeant Albright is and why her heart lights on fire in his presence, spurs on her actions.
Cathy spends the next two years, now with a new name – William Cathay, as a soldier protecting her identity from the men she shares close quarters with. She pees alone, showers alone, wraps her girl parts, and learns to pee standing up alone, except for one friend, Wager, who falls hard for the “man” who is the daughter of a daughter of a queen. Cathy only has eyes for Albright, which she does not hide well enough in a homophobic world. Between her shyness in the showers and mooning over Albright, the other troops become suspicious of the Sergeant’s pet and try to torture her, to little avail. The troops move to Texas and a new commander to fight insurgents and the travels make it harder and harder for Cathy to keep her true self hidden. Before reaching her tenure, out in the desert, Cathy realizes why she is so drawn to Albright and reveals herself to him, the first man to know her as a woman. Their love explodes and becomes difficult to hide but before they can finish their terms of service, their new commander tries to lead them to their death and they are separated. The army figures out Cathy’s secret and releases from her service. Thinking her lover dead, she spends her life running a boarding house with her sister until a carriage arrives at her doorstep with the surprise of a lifetime.
The language at the beginning of the book was hard to understand as it was set in the first person and Cathy spoke like an illiterate slave. The only other issue to prevent you from becoming absorbed in this novel is the first 130 pages are dull as the daily camp life can lull you to sleep. I promise, if you make it to part two you will be thoroughly rewarded. Cathy is strong from page one, innocent in education but strong of spirit and ingenuity. Her drive and tenacity will have you championing for her to live her life in a world who hated her skin as much as it belittled her gender. This powerful and compelling book will stir an anger in you for the travesties Cathy plowed her way through. After you read the last page, you will feel stronger and ready to take on the world as Williams has already paved the road. The other characters help to tell her story but no star shines as bright. This Mulan-like story will enthrall you with the most minute details cataloged and the fantastical surprise at the end.
Available in bookstores Tuesday, September 4th