four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
16-May-June-2005
By: 
John Bailey
user_rating: 
0

The Extraordinary True Story of Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans

A-LostGermanSlaveIn 1843, a fair-skinned slave girl named Sally Miller was spotted sitting on the stoop of her owner’s squalid New Orleans cabaret. The German immigrant woman who saw her claimed Sally was the long-lost daughter and mirror image of a friend who had perished in a Transatlantic crossing 25 years earlier. The six-year legal battle that ensued pitted the outraged German immigrant community, which demanded Sally’s freedom, against the girl’s powerful owner and his flashy lawyer, both determined to keep her locked in a life of servitude. The fierce controversy over whether Sally was white or black, and thus slave or free, fueled one of the most sensational trials of 19th-century America.
Atlantic Monthly. 268 pages. $24. ISBN: 0871139219

Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"In his telling of this fascinating tale, Bailey relates slavery to the immigrant experience and provides a new variation on the theme of man’s inhumanity to man. … Ultimately, the book is about the inanity of American slavery as much as about the identity of Salome, the lost German girl." Judith C. Allen

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"… a true story that reads like a novel. … More important, in the end, Bailey gives his own theory on whether Sally Miller was indeed the lost Salome Muller or just a lucky look-alike who seized a chance to escape from bondage." Sandra Dallas

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Bailey cleverly mixes meticulous research with the puzzle of the slave girl’s real identity. … He has crafted a compelling tale of one woman’s complex life and provided insight into an intriguing and passionate legal battle, and in the process he has given readers a revealing look at one of the darker periods of American history." Kathleen Krog

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Bailey … relishes telling this remarkable story as the courtroom drama it was, peppering it with fascinating tidbits of Louisiana history and elegant explanations of the law. He fleshes out every angle, every character, and pinpoints the legal pitfalls and triumphs with equal zeal." Mary-Liz Shaw

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Some of Bailey’s set-pieces are exceptionally well done, most notably his account of the perilous transatlantic journey and his depiction of New Orleans. … The [book] feels accurate, but it falls somewhere between history and fiction, and the reader does well to bear that in mind." Jonathan Yardley

Critical Summary

Critics found few faults with Bailey’s meticulous research and credited him for including all the elements of epic historical fiction in a nonfiction book. The narrative functions well on two levels: it’s both a riveting story and an intriguing history lesson, made more so with fine portraits of colorful characters (real people) and the society in which they lived. The author offers his own conclusion to the mystery, which some critics found shocking and one thought too pat to ring true. Regardless, this "diligent researcher and gifted storyteller" (Washington Post) has crafted an eye-opening portrait of a mysterious woman, and "tells her engrossing story… with polish and verve, weaving history and mystery neatly together" (Miami Herald).