20 books directly related to plantations 📚

All 20 plantation books as recommended by authors and experts. Updated weekly.

Life on a Plantation

By Bobbie Kalman,

Book cover of Life on a Plantation

Why this book?

When I begin researching a new historical subject I usually turn first to children’s books for a quick, broad overview. For Southern USA plantation life, Kalman’s book, part of the Historic Communities series, is a perfect introduction to the subject of southern plantations, with splendidly detailed drawings of homes and outbuildings, a glossary of terms, and many photographs from the latter decades before emancipation. Its focus is split between the planters’ lives and the lives of those they enslaved, introducing readers to every facet of this setting and the challenges faced by those who lived there. A great springboard into the subject for homeschooling.


The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661

By Carla Gardina Pestana,

Book cover of The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640-1661

Why this book?

Between 1640 and 1660, England, Scotland, and Ireland experienced civil war, invasion, religious radicalism, parliamentary rule, and the restoration of the monarchy. None of that will surprise historians of Britain, but they may not realize the impact of these events on Britain’s new colonies across the Atlantic. Some of them remained loyal to the king until his victorious opponents sent the first major Transatlantic expeditionary force to subdue them. 

Pestana shows how war and rebellion in Britain increased both the proportion of unfree labourers and ethnic diversity in the colonies. Neglected by London, several of them developed trade networks; some entered the slave trade. By 1660, the English Atlantic had become religiously polarized, economically interconnected, socially exploitative, and ideologically unstable.


Making Ireland British, 1580-1650

By Nicholas Canny,

Book cover of Making Ireland British, 1580-1650

Why this book?

This book is the best analysis written by the forerunner of Atlantic history in Ireland. Based on an astonishing amount of literary and historical sources, it is an outstanding insight into the complex and lengthy process of English colonization of Ireland set within the broader Atlantic and European context. 


Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680

By Stuart B. Schwartz (editor),

Book cover of Tropical Babylons: Sugar and the Making of the Atlantic World, 1450-1680

Why this book?

Although not exclusively focused on the Caribbean, the articles in this volume illuminate the long and complex history of sugar production in the early modern Iberian world, beginning with the Iberian Peninsula itself and expanding into the Atlantic island groups and across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and Brazil. The last article focuses on sugar production in seventeenth-century Barbados, underscoring that a long history of sugar cultivation preceded the better-known establishment of sugar production in the English and French islands. Here the reader will learn how sixteenth-century Europeans eagerly incorporated sugar into their cuisines and diet, at times consuming prodigious quantities. Together these articles present a fascinating and often surprising early history of a commodity that has had a huge impact on the world.


Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery

By John Michael Vlach,

Book cover of Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery

Why this book?

Though it was wealthy white planters who built plantations, the enslaved people who worked them imbued these landscapes with their own meanings. With over 200 photographs and drawings of Antebellum plantations, Vlach leads readers on a tour of plantation outbuildings, providing examples of how slaves used these spaces despite—and in defiance of—their masters’ intentions. Testimonies of former slaves (drawn from the Federal Writers’ Project collection) give the reader a sense of what it was like to live and work in these settings.


Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713

By Richard S. Dunn,

Book cover of Sugar and Slaves: The Rise of the Planter Class in the English West Indies, 1624-1713

Why this book?

My copy is loaded with underlines, dogears, and stickies to signify the wealth of information provided, particularly on the West Indies slave trade. From the geography of the islands to architecture, planting schedules, clothing fabrics, political corruption, and the slave market, Dunn covers everything in an interesting and illuminating way.


Teatime for the Firefly

By Shona Patel,

Book cover of Teatime for the Firefly

Why this book?

Set in 1940s India in the lead up to Independence, the backdrop is the rarely written about North-East India. The protagonists; Layla, (well-educated and independently-minded) and Manik (a free-thinker with a sense of adventure) are an unusual couple for the core romance but his work takes them to the remote tea plantations of Assam. I have written about the tea gardens in my India Tea Series, but largely from a British and Anglo-Indian point of view. Patel’s vivid depiction of this way of life is informed by her own upbringing, as the daughter of tea planters. It’s rich in detail with wonderful descriptions of Assam and keen observations of the British managers and Indian workers. As it builds towards Partition, the drama and tension are brilliantly evoked through Layla’s eyes.


The Yellow Wife

By Sadeqa Johnson,

Book cover of The Yellow Wife

Why this book?

This book is a tearjerker that left me on the edge of my seat. The harrowing experiences of the protagonist, Pheby Delores Brown, are vivid and you don’t want to stop until you finish. Personally reliving Pheby’s life is one of the reasons why I enjoyed this book so much. The fear is real.


Absalom, Absalom!

By William Faulkner,

Book cover of Absalom, Absalom!

Why this book?

Faulkner’s greatest novel is less about slavery per se than about how thoroughly racism has warped America—its culture, its politics, its families—from the very beginning. It takes the quintessential American story—of a (white) man with a dream and determination, who pulls himself up by his bootstraps to become wealthy and powerful—and turns it upside down, little by little revealing how he has fundamentally misunderstood himself, his society, and even his own family. Thomas Sutpen’s ignorance around race is his—and, by extension, all of America’s—downfall, leading inexorably to violence and grief. It’s a dense, challenging read, full of point-of-view shifts, interlocking timelines, and frequent use of the N-word—but it is so worth it.


The Kitchen House

By Kathleen Grissom,

Book cover of The Kitchen House

Why this book?

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.


The Known World

By Edward P. Jones,

Book cover of The Known World

Why this book?

Toni Morrison once described her books as simple stories about complicated characters, and this also applies to The Known World. This beautifully-written novel, told from the perspective of slave-owners, surprises—but in this case, because they’re Black.

I’d come across an instance of African American slave-owning (which were very few) while researching my first book. Jones understands that the contradictions of the premise offer a great opportunity to explore the fiction of American racial identity.

In The Known World, there are no characters in white hats and others in black hats. The African American characters are no more noble than the white ones.

No, slavery corrupts all.


The Cutting Season

By Attica Locke,

Book cover of The Cutting Season

Why this book?

Caren Gray, the manager of a historic plantation, learns the body of a migrant worker has been discovered on the grounds. Searching for answers, she stumbles upon another crime that occurred over a century ago in the era of slavery and may hold the key to unlocking revelations in the present. Locke does a fantastic job of balancing the two timelines for great effect. History can haunt us, but this book leaves you with the eerie feeling of being surveilled by the past.


Sugar

By Jewell Parker Rhodes,

Book cover of Sugar

Why this book?

Wow, I love this book. I read it out loud with my daughter when she was in seventh grade. It’s the story of a 10-year-old girl, Sugar, who works on a plantation with other Black laborers post-Civil War. She’s an orphan, witnessing first-hand the white plantation owner and his family in the midst of a total meltdown brought on by fear and greed. It’s an effective juxtaposition set against Sugar’s supportive and loving community which widens to include Chinese immigrants who arrive to help in the fields. At first, the Black and Chinese laborers regard each other with skepticism, but because of Sugar’s hope and optimism and kindness, they join forces. It’s a powerful historical novel that has stayed with me for years. 


The Farming of Bones

By Edwidge Danticat,

Book cover of The Farming of Bones

Why this book?

What I love most about Danticat’s writing—this is a very long list—is the way she evokes the inherent dignity of characters in almost unspeakably tragic situations. In this case, her subject is a pair of lovers and their community whose lives are upended by the 1937 massacre of Haitians and Dominico-Haitians living along the Dominican side of the border with Haiti. The mass killing is an inflection point in the two nations’ shared history, which individual human stories are essential to understanding.


The Widow of the South

By Robert Hicks,

Book cover of The Widow of the South

Why this book?

I really like this book because it tells the poignant tale of Carrie McGavock, who was forced to deal with the Civil War when it appeared in her front yard. This is based on a true story. Carrie was so compassionate that she buried the solders, both northern and southern, on her property. The cemetery at her home, Carnton Plantation, is still there. I had the opportunity to meet the author, Robert Hicks, at a book signing, and visit Carnton Plantation. The home served as a field hospital during the Battle of Franklin, and bloodstains still remain on the wooden floors.


How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

By Clint Smith,

Book cover of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

Why this book?

While David Blight helps us understand how a post Civil War reunion was built on a terribly incomplete and racially-biased foundation, Clint Smith’s beautifully written book probes the way various Americans, black and white, Northern and Southern, as well as some non-Americans, are currently reckoning with the slave past. In the book, we follow Smith, an African-American journalist and poet, on his travels to several historic sites, among them Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia; the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana; a Confederate cemetery; and Gorée Island in Senegal. Along the way, we not only learn a lot about the history of these sites but also how individual Americans, many of them regular folk visiting these places, are grappling with the past and the present, and how to make sense of our nation’s long history of slavery.


Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

By Sharla M. Fett,

Book cover of Working Cures: Healing, Health, and Power on Southern Slave Plantations

Why this book?

Slaves brought deep knowledge of healing cures and medicines from Africa and that knowledge remained and circulated, helping “to heal the body and preserve the soul” as they endured slavery. Slaves held a “relational view” of sickness and health, focusing on the broader slave community and its health rather than the wellness or illness of the individual. This book in no way romanticizes slave healing as aiding an idealized communal harmony. Fett never lets us forget that slaves always faced conflict and struggle, especially since slaveholders intervened constantly in matters of health. Here, though, we gain a deep and powerful—and painful—understanding of certain kinds of relations on plantations, particularly male and female slaves’ work of curing and healing, and the uses of “conjuring,” “working roots,” divination, and “the clandestine practices of antebellum hoodoo.” Interpreting medical beliefs and practices, Fett illuminates broader social struggles over power.


The Bondwoman's Narrative

By Hannah Crafts,

Book cover of The Bondwoman's Narrative

Why this book?

Though not published until 2002, after Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. purchased and authenticated the manuscript, the autobiographical novel The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crafts is widely considered the first book known to have been written by a fugitive enslaved woman. Crafts was the author’s pseudonym, and the novel, estimated to have been written in 1858, parallels the life of Hannah Bond, a woman who is documented to have escaped enslavement on a North Carolina plantation and who, like the novel’s protagonist, eventually settled in New Jersey. The preface and introduction of the published book read like a mystery adventure as Professor Gates reveals his multifaceted strategies to identify the real-life author and the real-life characters of her book.


The French Sugar Business in the Eighteenth Century

By Robert Louis Stein,

Book cover of The French Sugar Business in the Eighteenth Century

Why this book?

This book offers a lucid and very accessible study of the nuts and bolts of the eighteenth-century French sugar business. Readers get a clear understanding of the key aspects of the enterprise that made France the main sugar exporter in the world – from how it was financed, to how it relied on African slave labor, to its cultivation in the Caribbean sugar plantations. It also offers one of the best discussions of the local French domestic industries involved in the sugar business.


Property

By Valerie Martin,

Book cover of Property

Why this book?

A thin, little book and a true masterpiece!

Narrated by Manon Gaudet, the mistress of an 1830s plantation outside New Orleans, the novel forced me to adopt the perspective of a person who is both oppressed, as a woman in the 19th century, and oppressor, as a slave-owner, who is keenly observant and stunningly blind. Manon’s body-servant, Sarah, has given birth to a deaf wild-child who Manon cannot ignore, given his striking resemblance to her own husband. Manon, who is obsessed with Sarah too, is incapable of recognizing her as someone being victimized by her husband. She only sees a rival.

I teach Property in my classes. My students hate Manon. They also love the book!