The best books about indentured servants

5 authors have picked their favorite books about indentured servants and why they recommend each book.

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The Kitchen House

By Kathleen Grissom,

Book cover of The Kitchen House

In this bestseller, Grissom offers an intricate view of little-known history. I am intrigued by stories that open a window onto aspects of life in history that, for one reason or another, are unfamiliar. Grissom’s story of an Irish indentured servant struggling to bridge the gap between race and class is just such a revelation. These issues remain timeless and powerful.

Who am I?

Diane C. McPhail is the award-winning author of The Abolitionist’s Daughter, her debut novel based on family history and little-known impediments to Southern Abolitionism and anti-slavery. Her yet-to-be-titled second novel, a historical 1900 Chicago & New Orleans psychological mystery, is due for release in the spring of 2022. As an experienced therapist, Diane has a passionate interest in the complex, sometimes conflicting, qualities of character and culture, and how those intricacies complicate the plot. Diane holds an M.F.A., M.A., and Doctor of Ministry.

I wrote...

The Abolitionist's Daughter

By Diane C. McPhail,

Book cover of The Abolitionist's Daughter

What is my book about?

In her sweeping debut, Diane C. McPhail offers a powerful, profoundly emotional novel that explores a little-known aspect of Civil War history--Southern Abolitionists--and the timeless struggle to do right even amidst bitter conflict.

On a Mississippi morning in 1859, Emily Matthews begs her father to save a slave, Nathan, about to be auctioned away from his family. Judge Matthews is an abolitionist who runs an illegal school for his slaves, hoping to eventually set them free. One, a woman named Ginny, has become Emily's companion and often her conscience--and understands all too well the hazards an educated slave must face. Yet even Ginny could not predict the tangled, tragic string of events set in motion as Nathan's family arrives at the Matthews farm.

A young doctor, Charles Slate, tends to injured Nathan and begins to court Emily, finally persuading her to become his wife. But their union is disrupted by a fatal clash and a lie that will tear two families apart. As Civil War erupts, Emily, Ginny, and Emily's stoic mother-in-law, Adeline, each face devastating losses. Emily--sheltered all her life--is especially unprepared for the hardships to come. Struggling to survive in this raw, shifting new world, Emily will discover untapped inner strength, an unlikely love, and the courage to confront deep, painful truths.

Coolie Woman

By Gaiutra Bahadur,

Book cover of Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture

This book is both a biography of Sujaria, the author’s great-grandmother, and a critical look at indentured labour in the Caribbean. Many thousands were transported from India to British Guiana to work on plantations in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The vast majority were men. This created a society where women were both exploited and yet held unusual power due to their scarcity. In seeking to discover more about her ancestor, Bahadur also returned to her ancestral village of Bhurahupur, in Bihar. A fascinating look at past and present.

Who am I?

As the author of Hicky's Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India's First Newspaper I have great interest in journalism and history in the Indian subcontinent. There are relatively few books that explore these topics in a narrative nonfiction way. It is my hope that this shortlist will help readers find a few good books to start with.

I wrote...

Hicky's Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India's First Newspaper

By Andrew Otis,

Book cover of Hicky's Bengal Gazette: The Untold Story of India's First Newspaper

What is my book about?

Into the steaming cauldron of skullduggery and intrigue that is eighteenth-century India walks James Augustus Hicky, a wild Irishman seeking fame and fortune. Sensing an opportunity, he decides to establish a newspaper, the first of its kind in South Asia. In two short years, his endeavour threatens to lay bare the murky underside of the early British empire. Does it succeed?

This is the story of the forces Hicky came up against, the corrupt authorities determined to stop him, and of his resourcefulness. The product of five years of research by Andrew Otis in the archives of India, UK, and Germany, Hicky’s Bengal Gazette: The Story of India’s First Newspaper is an essential and compelling addition to the history of subcontinental journalism.

Kushiel's Dart

By Jacqueline Carey,

Book cover of Kushiel's Dart

This ground-breaking fantasy novel incorporates eroticism with worldbuilding. The religion of the society centers around sex with the motto, “Love as thou wilt.” The heroine, Phèdre nó Delauney has been born with a mote in her eye, signifying that she is one of the rare individuals who finds pain to be erotic, and so she becomes a celebrated and sought-after courtesan.

Who am I?

I believe sex is at the core of every society. Not just intimacy, but procreation—how entities, human or otherwise, reproduce. I’m interested in how they select mates and care for their young. From this most basic of imperatives flows all of biology, history, and society. What would happen if society were different? What would happen if sex were different? I write speculative fiction exploring what could be. So far I’ve written about 20 short stories and 6 novels. 2 of the short stories and 3 of my novels have been published—with more on their way.

I wrote...

The Fisherman and the Gene Thief

By Lizzie Newell,

Book cover of The Fisherman and the Gene Thief

What is my book about?

Teakh Noahee lives on a planet with three women for every man. Nice odds for a young fellow, but the society is matriarchal, and women are fussy. They prefer men who are loyal, altruistic, and above all monogamous—an impossible rarity given the shortage of men. That is until a lab technician runs genetic tests on Teakh’s blood and discovers the genes of the perfect man, or so she thinks.

Before he’s aware of these tests, he’s seduced by three mysterious women who in all likelihood acquire a sperm sample to be sold on the black market. This would be fine except he’s to become a high-priced sperm donor. To make matters worse, he’s fallen head-over-heels in love with the most beautiful of his seductresses.

The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict

By Austin Reed, Caleb Smith (editor),

Book cover of The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict

This book surprised the scholarly community when the manuscript was first obtained at an estate sale.  A handwritten memoir that had lain largely unread for over a hundred and fifty years, this narrative depicts the sort of child we rarely see in the history books. A defiant apprentice, a runaway truant, a bartender, a prisoner, and author, Austin Reed offers us one plot twist after another. As a free person of color in the nineteenth century, Reed offers a compelling view into the life of one man who was determined to maintain his own sense of self, even in the face of a quickly growing carceral state that imprisoned him both as a child and as a man.

Who am I?

I am an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. I’ve spent most of my career thinking about the role children have played in American culture. Adults, past and present, often overlook the intelligence and resilience of children who have managed to change both their immediate circumstances, and the world around them. I seek out these children and do my best to honor their stories. I’ve written or edited four other books on race and childhood, and have a podcast on children in history.

I wrote...

Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation

By Anna Mae Duane,

Book cover of Educated for Freedom: The Incredible Story of Two Fugitive Schoolboys Who Grew Up to Change a Nation

What is my book about?

I’ve taught nineteenth-century African American literature classes for years. Much of what shows up on college courses dedicated to this subject are narratives of slavery and suffering. While slave narratives are undoubtedly necessary reading, my students asked for other stories to read as well: chronicles of Black aspiration, resilience, and professional success. My book, Educated for Freedom is one such story. 

In the 1820s, few Americans could imagine a viable future for black children. Even abolitionists saw just two options for African American youth: permanent subjection or exile. Educated for Freedom tells the story of James McCune Smith and Henry Highland Garnet, two black children who came of age and into freedom as their country struggled to grow from a slave nation into a free country.

Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl

By Kate McCafferty,

Book cover of Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl

This novel, set in the time of Oliver Cromwell, is about a girl kidnapped from her Galway home and shipped to Barbados to be sold as an indentured servant to work alongside African slaves. We learn of her life as she gives testimony to an English officer after a failed rebellion. Well researched and powerfully written, one can feel the anger and bitterness of her oppressed existence, and her fierce passion for her African rebel husband. It brings history to life.

Who am I?

Nancy Blanton is an American author of Irish descent. A former journalist, she’s written four award-winning novels rooted in 17th century Irish history. Her first novel, Sharavogue, takes place in the lawless West Indies on the island of Montserrat, where the protagonist struggles to survive the slavery, disease, kindness, and brutality of an Irish-owned sugar plantation.

I wrote...

Sharavogue: A Novel of Ireland and the West Indies

By Nancy Blanton,

Book cover of Sharavogue: A Novel of Ireland and the West Indies

What is my book about?

It is December of 1649 as England’s uncrowned king, Oliver Cromwell, leads his new model army across Ireland to crush a violent rebellion. As the relentless cavalry approaches, Elvy Burke knows she will not give up easily. When Cromwell cruelly beheads a village boy, Elvy vows to destroy him. After escaping from his soldiers, she aligns with a Scottish outlaw whose schemes send them headlong into a tumultuous journey across the sea to the West Indies, where she learns to survive under impossible conditions and discovers the depth of her own strengths and emotions. Sharavogue is the compelling story of one girl’s journey and unwavering belief in destiny.


By Sally Cabot Gunning,

Book cover of Bound

Bound is set in the years prior to the American Revolution, and highlights the difficulties faced by girls and women indentured servants. Alice and her family set out for America from England, but when her mother and brothers die during the voyage, Alice’s father decides he cannot keep her and sells her as an indentured servant upon reaching Boston. Alice should have had a middle-class upbringing, but instead, she becomes chattel. The scenes of abuse in this book are stark, but it helps to shed light on the sufferings of the disenfranchised and the helpless. Alice’s determination will inspire.

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by American history and have clear memories of celebrating America’s bicentennial as a child. I have twenty-two Revolutionary Patriots in my family history, and I am most proud of my 6x-great grandmother, Anna Asbury Stone, for her bravery and daring during the winter of 1778. I did extensive genealogical research to learn about her, her family, and her circumstances before writing Answering Liberty’s Call: Anna Stone’s Daring Ride to Valley Forge.

I wrote...

Answering Liberty's Call: Anna Stone's Daring Ride to Valley Forge: A Novel

By Tracy Lawson,

Book cover of Answering Liberty's Call: Anna Stone's Daring Ride to Valley Forge: A Novel

What is my book about?

In 1778, war is men's business. That doesn't stop Anna Stone from getting involved in the fight for liberty. When her soldier husband and brothers face starvation at Valley Forge, Anna is not content to pray and worry. She gets on her horse and strikes out alone over two hundred miles of rough roads to bring them life-sustaining supplies.

Eighty miles from her destination, Anna learns of a plot to overthrow General Washington and replace him with a commander who will surrender. With the fate of the American Revolution in her hands, she agrees to carry a message of warning and races to reach Valley Forge before one of the conspirators, who is in hot pursuit, can intercept her. Based on events in the life of the author's 6x great-grandmother.

The Captive Heart

By Michelle Griep,

Book cover of The Captive Heart

Reminiscent of the wildness, adventure, and romance of The Last of the Mohicans, Captive Heart sizzles on every page. This is Michelle Griep's best book yet and one that played out before my eyes like an epic movie I kept wanting to watch over and over. The romance is perfect, the adventure nonstop, and the characters really touch your heart. 

Who am I?

What can I say? I’m a hopeless romantic. There’s nothing better than a great romance novel set in the past when chivalry was not dead. I’m a published author of more than twenty-five novels, including a great pirate series. I grew up in Florida and fell in love with the tropics as I sat on the beach and dreamt of handsome pirates. Once I became a Christian, I started reading Christian romances but found many of them moved a little slow to my liking, so I decided to write one myself! I have a BA in Computer Science and have won several awards for my writing.   

I wrote...

Veil of Pearls

By MaryLu Tyndall,

Book cover of Veil of Pearls

What is my book about?

She thought she could outrun her past...In 1811 the prosperous port city of Charleston is bustling with plantation owners, slaves, and immigrants such as Adalia Winston. But Adalia has a secret: her light skin belies that she is part black and a runaway slave from Barbados. Skilled in herbal remedies, Adalia finds employment with a local doctor and settles into a quiet life.

Born into one of Charleston’s prominent families, Morgan Rutledge is handsome, bored—and enamored of the beautiful Adalia, who spurns his advances. Morgan’s persistence finally wins, and Adalia is swept into the world of Charleston high society. But when her owner comes to find her, will that love be enough, or will the truth ruin Morgan and send Adalia back into slavery?

Amal Unbound

By Aisha Saeed,

Book cover of Amal Unbound

Amal’s story asks the question of how to fight for justice against seemingly impossible odds. In rural Pakistan, Amal faces responsibilities to her family that force her to leave school, seemingly crushing her dreams of becoming a teacher. After a run-in with the son of the village’s landlord, Amal finds herself forced into indentured servitude. Injustice upon injustice weigh against her, but through her intellect and ingenuity, she finds a way to escape her service and free her town by bringing the corrupt landlord to justice.

Who am I?

As a parent, I’ve been struck by the fierce sense of justice my children have, from the unfairness of one getting more screen time to bigger injustices, like bullying or discrimination. Kids have an innate sense of what’s right, of what’s fair, but they can also lack a sense of nuance and have rather Byzantine notions of what justice requires. I wrote Wayward Creatures to explore a different way of thinking about justice and accountability. Restorative justice practices seek to bring the offending party together with the people hurt by their actions to acknowledge the harm caused and find a solution together. These five books explore other aspects of what it means to seek justice.

I wrote...

Wayward Creatures

By Dayna Lorentz,

Book cover of Wayward Creatures

What is my book about?

Twelve-year-old Gabe is frustrated with his family, his friends—his whole life, if he’s perfectly honest. In a desperate attempt to recapture the attention of his friends, Gabe sets off fireworks in the woods near his house and ignites a forest fire. A coyote named Rill—tired of her family and longing for adventure—is caught in the chaos of the flames. 

Gabe’s and Rill’s paths irrevocably cross when Gabe is tasked with cleaning up the forest through the court’s restorative justice program. The damage to the land and both their lives is beyond what the two can imagine. But together, they discover that sometimes it only takes one friend to find the place where you belong.

Our Nig

By Harriet E. Wilson,

Book cover of Our Nig

Early African American fiction is not as well-known as the slave narrative genre, but the few novels that do exist before the Civil War are sophisticated interpretations and developments of sentimental fiction. Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig is a bildungsroman charting the life of free Black servant girl Frado who is exploited and abused by her adopted white family. Wilson challenges the passive and flat portraits of Black men and women in most antebellum fiction, by portraying a complex and multifaceted character in Frado.

Who am I?

I’m a lecturer at the University of Liverpool who researches 19th century American literature. A year studying in central Pennsylvania sparked my interest in early US writing and led me to a PhD in the subject. I’m fascinated in how American literature of this period both upholds and challenges the founding myths of the nation - liberty, egalitarianism, progress – and how new genres, such as science fiction and the gothic, develop over the century.

I wrote...

Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction

By Hannah Murray,

Book cover of Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction

What is my book about?

In Liminal Whiteness in Early US Fiction, Hannah Lauren Murray shows that early US authors repeatedly imagined lost, challenged and negated white citizenship in the new nation. Reading canonical and lesser-known writers including Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville, Murray argues that white characters on the borders of life and death were liminal presences that disturbed prescriptions of racial belonging in the early US. Fears of losing whiteness were routinely channelled through the language of liminality, in a precursor to today’s white anxieties of marginalisation and minoritisation.

The Widow Washington

By Martha Saxton,

Book cover of The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington

Until Martha Saxton came along, Mary Ball Washington was much maligned by historians--but she’s no Mary Washington apologist. Saxton wrote the first comprehensive book on the first President’s mother with her eyes wide open and no one, not mother or son, gets away with anything.

Who am I?

Alexis Coe is a presidential historian and the New York Times bestselling author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, which was also Audible’s best history book of 2020 and Barnes and Nobel's nonfiction Book of the Month. She was a producer and appeared in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Washington series on the History Channel.

I wrote...

You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington

By Alexis Coe,

Book cover of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington

What is my book about?

Young George Washington was raised by a struggling single mother, demanded military promotions, caused an international incident, and never backed down--even when his dysentery got so bad he had to ride with a cushion on his saddle. But after he married Martha, everything changed. Washington became the kind of man who named his dog Sweetlips and hated to leave home. He took up arms against the British only when there was no other way, though he lost more battles than he won.

With irresistible style and warm humor, You Never Forget Your First combines rigorous research and lively storytelling that will have readers--including those who thought presidential biographies were just for dads--inhaling every page.

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