Nubian Circle Book Club

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Douglass Women

Phyllis Rhodes

In her latest novel, Douglass' Women, Jewel Parker Rhodes travels back in history to the antebellum and Civil War era to examine the loves of Frederick Douglass.  She stretches the imagination by exploring the psyche of Anna, a free woman of color, who loves Douglass almost to a fault and Ottilie Assing, a European, free-spirit who is attracted to the polished and principled Douglass.

The novel, told in a chronological alternating chapter format, provides the reader a glimpse into the character and upbringing of each woman.  Anna is a quiet, hardworking homemaker, devoted wife and mother who clings to the belief that love conquers all.  She has a strong sense of family and has witnessed unconditional love between her parents and siblings.  Her one wish is to have the same love returned to her from Douglass.  Unfortunately Douglass, a self-taught ex-slave, has been elevated to a level of celebrity and lifestyle that pushed Anna to the background where she reluctantly finds comfort.  While her husband is recognized as a skilled orator and accomplished author, Anna is regarded as a recluse and intentionally remains illiterate (despite Douglass urging otherwise) which creates an erudite chasm between them that widens as the years progress. 

 Ottilie Assing, a genteel woman of German-Jewish ancestry, works as Douglass's interpreter.  She fills the intellectual void and accompanies Douglass on many engagements.  They grow fond of each other and a lifetime love affair begins. Rhodes writes very vividly so the reader clearly understands the similarities, differences, jealousy, envy, and anger each woman feels toward each other and Douglass.  Rhodes also parallels the societal prejudices of Jews in Europe to Africans in America which justifies Ottilie's attraction to the abolitionist's views.  Although this is a work of historical fiction, she carefully follows the actual timeframe of events to effortlessly blend in factual people, places, and excerpts from speeches which lends credibility to the novel.  From a literary standpoint, her use of the "water-death-freedom" symbolism was handled expertly and was used as the unifying thread for both women's tales.

The Nubian Circle Book Club rating for Douglass' Women is 4 out of 5 stars.


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