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Sold Down the River by Barbara Hambly

Sold Down the River (2000)

by Barbara Hambly

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Benjamin January (4)

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343648,284 (4.07)29



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This is the fourth Benjamin January novel in the series about the doctor/piano player who lives in New Orleans in the 1830s as a Free Man of Color. This is perhaps, so far, one of her most serious and dangerous books in the series. January has just been recently robbed and is in need of money, but that is not what ultimately makes him take on this job for the policeman Shaw. January's former master, Simon Fourchet is having trouble on his sugar cane plantation, Mon Triomphe. The slave's food has been poisoned, a butler murdered when he snuck a drink of Fourchet's liquor, and another slave killed in a fire in the mill. There are voodoo marks everywhere and Fourchet believes there is the possibility of a slave revolt, but he is not entirely convinced and wants to hire January to uncover the truth.

After some convincing by his sister and Rose, he reluctantly agrees, mainly because there is a good chance that if something is not done, the slaves will be punished severely for this. There had been a revolt in 1798 on Fourchet's family plantation, but most of the slaves were caught and killed. So January leaves behind his Parisian French for the African patois of a field hand (there are many different dialects of French in the area). He pretends to be his violin player friend Hannibal's personal slave. Hannibal, who suffers from consumption, is invited to stay on Fourchet's plantation when his health takes a turn for the worse. January, who was too young to work in the cane fields before being freed by his mother's lover, still remembers how things work on one, and is placed in the fields since they do not have enough hands. It is hard work and January's tender, piano playing hands are soon blistered and bleeding and he is aching all over from working from sunup until dark. It will take a while for him to recover and be able to play again at the winter balls if he can survive this at all.

He makes friends and begins to find out information about the slaves, such as the relationship between Quashie and Jeanette, who is being forced to have sex with the evil overseer, who has it in for Quashie and blames him for anything that goes wrong on the plantation by having him severely whipped, as when the sugar cane knives go missing and are mostly destroyed. On the plantation, women are given, in a sort of marriage, to male slaves in order to get more work out of them. Kikki, for instance, is first given to Reuben, until she lets Madam Marie-Noel Fourchet, a sixteen-year-old cousin of the Doubrey's who owns a large piece of land and have a complicated history and are upset at her for marrying Fourchet, who now has a chance of owning her father's plantation, Refuge, lets her marry Gilles, the murdered butler. She is Fourchet's third wife, the other two having died. The first gave birth to his eldest son, Robert, who was away in Paris with his annoying wife and children when the trouble first began. The second son, Esteban, is the only surviving child of his mother. The others were believed to have been killed by the slave nanny. Robert makes many overtures toward his stepmother and seems to have feelings for her that it appears she does not share.

Mohammad, the old blacksmith, provides January with information, including the whereabouts of the slaves when the various incidents occur. It is indeed a true puzzle because it appears that a slave or former slave is causing the trouble. But why? Or maybe it is one of Fourchet's many enemies, which include Trader Jones who trades illegal items to slaves and others and is hated by everyone up and down the river.

January has Hannibal return to New Orleans and talk to Shaw about looking into Fourchet's will and his son's activities in New Orleans. He is only supposed to be gone a day, but when a couple of days pass, January becomes quite worried. He has a signal he places on a post visible to the ships passing for Shaw to know that he is ok. He places a different colored neckerchief for each day of the week. When two slave cabins catch fire along with some other buildings, Fourchet is affected in a minor way by the smoke and needs to spend some time in bed. With each day, however, he gets sicker and sicker. Now January is terrified because the Ney brothers are in league with the Doubreys against Fourchet and the Ney brothers are known for grabbing any slave and selling them upriver and January is in danger of having this happen to him. His only option is to take down the handkerchief and hope that Shaw gets the message and him and Hannibal return in time to save him.

This is a dark novel that really explores the life of a slave on a cane plantation, which is the hardest type of plantation to work on. You can actually get an idea of the complicated relationships between master and slave and that not all masters are good ones, like in Gone With the Wind, or evil, like in Uncle Tom's Cabin. This, in my opinion, is a truer account of a slave's life and how throughout, they manage to find happiness when and where they can, however fleetingly, and endure, no matter what they are put through. This is also a story of the evil found in the hearts of humans that can lead one to consider and commit murder and other acts of violence. This book is a true tour de force and a worthy read.


Hell, thought January, stumbling on blistered feet, aching, his mind curiously clear. What window had the ancients looked through, to see that Hell would actually be a Louisiana sugar-mill on a November night?
--Barbara Hambly (Sold Down the River p 67)

January recalled what the Romans has said, that Death was Freedom for a slave.
--Barbara Hambly (Sold Down the River p 101)

Given the Creole system of keeping land and family together and everyone living and working under one roof, I’m a little surprised there aren’t more murders in such households.
--Barbara Hambly (Sold Down the River p 110)

As Cinderella would probably tell you, even a prince who only recognizes your footwear is preferable to a lifetime cleaning out grates.
--Barbara Hambly (Sold Down the River p 111)

You can’t defeat the army, he thought. But if you lie quiet in cover you might save yourself and win a skirmish or two.
--Barbara Hambly (Sold Down the River p 125)

How is it women can sit and talk about men, and they get all prickly and hot when they think men are talking about them?
--Barbara Hambly (Sold Down the River p 136)

In the few moments over the past four days when he wasn’t sound asleep or wishing he could be, he missed Rose desperately, and, though he felt childish for doing so, missed his piano nearly as much. Missed the godlike logic of Bach, and Vivaldi’s wry grace. Missed the peace they brought to his mind and his heart.
--Barbara Hambly (Sold Down the River p 143)

Behind every great fortune there is a great crime, my dear Theo. Surely you know that.
--Barbara Hambly (Sold Down the River p 281-2) ( )
  nicolewbrown | Aug 2, 2017 |
This is the fourth in the series of Benjamin January historical mysteries and features Ben going “undercover” as a slave on a ruthlessly-run plantation where his father had been transferred years before. Someone on the plantation is killing people and the owner appears to be the target. Ben consents, with reservations, to a request for assistance from Shaw, the relatively broad-minded New Orleans policeman who Ben has worked with before and generally trusts. It’s a dangerous undertaking at best, but the slaves may very well be the ones to suffer regardless of what the truth really is. Although Ben knows that Shaw, and his friend Hannibal, will try to help him if he gets into trouble, the ability of either of those two white men to do anything is thrown into doubt as things get complicated.

As usual, the story is well told, intricate, and subtle. One of the things I like about these stories is that they are often not straightforward who-done-its. They’re couched in the culture and realities of the times. The perpetrator isn’t always brought to justice, and we may or may not be alright with that outcome ( )
  Carol_W | Jun 8, 2016 |
New Orleans and Louisiana, 1840s

Tore through this one today. Benjamin January finds an unexpected guest in his mother's house - his former owner, Simon Fourchet. To his surprise, his mother expects Ben to do the man a favor and investigate some sabotage going on at the sugar plantation. Ben wants nothing to do with him. But he knows what will happen if they don't find the culprit - all the slaves will be held responsible, they'll be sold, and the families will be split up. Ben reluctantly agrees to help, and finds himself returning to just where he never wanted to be - down the river, as a slave. Sure, it's a pose, but he's in terrible danger.

I really liked this one. I love Benjamin January, and there was a LOT of suspense on this one, waiting to see exactly what would happen to him. I really wasn't as interested in the identity of the murderer (yes, it becomes murder), as I was in seeing if Ben would get off the plantation in one piece. Very good. 5 stars ( )
1 vote cmbohn | Jan 12, 2013 |
Benjamin January is asked by his former slave owner to come and investigate a possible slave revolt on his plantation. January reluctantly goes, posing as a slave, in order to get the bottom of all the strange happenings. However, he learns that the plantation owner's family also has secrets and axes to grind, as well. He befriends many of the slaves on the plantation, and he's also reminded of the hard labor and unfair treatment that he escaped many years before. The author gives vivid detail of the scenery, the situations and treatment of both the family and slaves, and accurate historical background to life in Louisiana pre Civil War. If you are someone that enjoys reading about this particular era in American history, this is an excellent book for you. I was more impressed with the historical fiction aspect of this book more so than the actual mystery. ( )
1 vote abwahl1998 | Jan 13, 2012 |
The fourth installment in the Benjamin January series finds "free man of color" January returning to the plantation where he had been a slave as a child to solve a murder.

This book might have had a much different review if I had read it before I traveled to New Orleans and the Creole plantations along the River Road. Barbara Hambly based the plantation in the book on a real plantation found on the River Road, Laura. I really could imagine that I was there with Benjamin January as he went about his daily tasks because I could envision the places he was seeing.

This book also describes the different ways that Creole plantations were run versus the "Tara" or American plantations were run. They are definitely NOT the same. ( )
1 vote lmedgerton | Aug 9, 2008 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Barbara Hamblyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Becker,Royce M.Cover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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When someone ties you naked to a tree in the yard and beats you unconscious with a broom handle, you don't soon forget it, or him.
"As Cinderella would probably tell you, even a prince who only recognizes your footwear is preferable to a lifetime of cleaning grates."
"So many men say to Allah, 'Show me your will and I'll do it,' and then when Allah says 'Take this staff and go save that flock of sheep from wolves,' they say, 'Show me your other will.'"
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553575295, Mass Market Paperback)

Penetrating the murkiest corners of glittering New Orleans society, Benjamin January brought murderers to justice in A Free Man of Color, Fever Season, and Graveyard Dust. Now, in Barbara Hambly's haunting new novel, he risks his life in a violent plantation world darker than anything in the city....

When slave owner Simon Fourchet asks Benjamin January to investigate sabotage, arson, and murder on his plantation, January is reluctant to do any favors for the savage man who owned him until he was seven. But he knows too well that plantation justice means that if the true culprit is not found, every slave on Mon Triomphe will suffer.

Abandoning his Parisian French for the African patois of a field hand, cutting cane until his bones ache and his musician's hands bleed, Benjamin must use all his intelligence and cunning to find the killer ... or find himself sold down the river.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:05:42 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Benjamin January, a musician in New Orleans, returns to the slavery of Mon Triomphe, Simon Fourchet's upriver sugar plantation, to unravel secrets and sins which have manifested in a mysterious fire, a poisoning, a murder, and voodoo curse marks.

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