Maia Ransom, a dynamic, strong-willed nurse in her mid-thirties, has traveled to the Caribbean paradise of St. Croix for one reason: to discover some trace of her family, exiled from the island more than a century earlier. Maia knows she must find the Ransoms quickly or surrender to the tumor that doctors warned her could soon take her life. Quickly seduced by the island’s fascinating array of people, its turquoise waters and diamond beaches, Maia is little prepared for what she discovers when she first sets foot on Estate Wisdom, her ancestral “home”…
Severin Johanssen is the last survivor of the Danish family that once owned Maia’s enslaved ancestors, a “white man who doesn’t know he’s white” (as one character describes him). Alcoholic, living in a state of filthy degradation, Severin has allowed Wisdom, once the most beautiful and gracious property on the island, to fall into a state of unspeakable decay.
Paulette Johanssen Fairchild is Severin’s beautiful, wealthy cousin, who intends to obtain control of Wisdom at any price. Paulette lives among the island’s white elite, whose golf and tennis lives bring them into little contact with its black population. Her obsession with the family property, and her hatred of Severin, makes her a formidable enemy to anyone who would dare lay claim on Wisdom.
Noah Langston is the handsome black attorney who turned his “affirmative action” education at the island’s all-white prep-school into an opportunity to become an Ivy League-trained attorney. Refusing to embrace the professional opportunities of life in the States, Noah has returned to St. Croix to wrest the land from the whites and return it to “his people,” the descendants of the slaves.
Above all, Maia is not prepared for what she soon learns about her own heritage! Descended from the mythic Ransom slaves who were highly valued throughout St. Croix as “healers,” her name alone instantly elicits a range of responses from the island’s black and white inhabitants. Gaining access to Wisdom by agreeing to serve as Severin’s nurse, Maia is quickly led toward the dark temptations of the decaying house, while experiencing the social divisions that separate rich and poor, black and white. She is thrust into the very center of the bitter struggle for control of the estate after Noah discovers documents suggesting that she may, in fact, be the legal heir of Wisdom.
When the struggle for Wisdom turns violent, Maia’s survival literally depends on “her people”:
Noah, whose initial desire to “use” her quickly grows into love;
Catherine, the brilliant black surgeon who has wanted Noah for many years; Damian, the black expatriate from New York who is facing a life or death struggle of his own,
and the black women of Wisdom, who have been exploited for decades by the Johanssen family.
As Maia moves relentlessly toward discovering the dangerous truth about her ultimate claim on the estate, she comes into a greater wisdom of her personal strength, the limits of her courage, and the bloodlines that tie her, across time, to the blacks who share her destiny. In a dramatic conclusion that illuminates the tragic secrets of two families bound together by forbidden love, Maia must choose whether to sacrifice her own life, or fulfill the desperate hopes and dreams of her slave ancestors.
A discussion about WISDOM with Heather Neff
How has your life changed since your first novel, BLACKGAMMON, was published?
Everything changes when something as important as this happens! I’ve had the opportunity to meet hundreds of truly great people. I’ve visited with book clubs, talked to journalists, attended lots of book signings. It’s been a challenging, but deeply rewarding time.
What’s new or different about your second novel, WISDOM?
WISDOM is a complete departure from BLACKGAMMON. Drawing on my interest in the histories of the African diaspora and my love of a good “thriller,” this novel weaves the past and present together in new and exciting ways. I tried to imagine what an African American woman might feel if she was suddenly offered the chance to discover the history of her enslaved ancestors. Would she be thrilled? Or hurt and angered by their suffering? I think that most people are extremely moved when they’re faced with their family’s struggles to survive.
Have you experienced anything similar in your life?
Several years ago I traveled to North Carolina and sought out the birth and death records of my maternal ancestors. I held in my hands a deed for property purchased by my great-great grandfather, who was born in slavery. It was an amazing moment. I remember the tears pouring uncontrollably down my face. I felt as if he was touching me, somehow, through that century-old paper!
Why did you set WISDOM in the Virgin Islands?
I had the good fortune to live in St. Croix from 1990 to 1992. I loved the many Caribbean cultures, languages, dialects, religions and histories I found there. I was also haunted by the ruins of the sugar plantations, and in particular, the stone windmills that seem to rise up on every hill all over the island.
Soon after arriving I painted a large portrait of a slave woman sitting on a boulder, staring out to sea. This portrait has hung in our home ever since. Now, over a decade later, I’ve finally given this slave woman a life of her own! This painting was the inspiration for WISDOM. All the characters in the book came entirely from my imagination, but they were “born” in this unique and wonderful place.
Have you visited St. Croix since moving back to Michigan?
Yes. I returned several times while writing WISDOM, and I’ve maintained close ties with friends we made while living on this beautiful island. And of course, my daughter was born there!
The characters of Chloe and Michael from your novel BLACKGAMMON were very strong and ambitious. How does Maia Ransom, the main character from WISDOM compare?
Maia is a woman who has spent much of her life surrounded by suffering. She’s a nurse. She’s lost her parents and she has come to St. Croix to discover something worth believing in. Unlike Chloe and Michael, she doesn’t have a strong sense of direction. That is, until she first sets foot on St. Croix and discovers an amazing sense of being “at home.”
Do you think, then, that everyone has a true “home”?
Yes. But sometimes it’s very difficult to find it. Maia has to confront some serious enemies, and face her own secret fears in order to find her place in the world. She also has to learn to trust the people who really do care about her.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this novel?
I wanted the characters to reflect some of the dialects, customs and oral traditions of the Caribbean. So I did some research into the folktales, proverbs, and regional languages of the islands. I tried to enrich the dialogue with typical words and expressions, and to represent the extended family ties that bind people closely together in the Caribbean. WISDOM is about communities and how we become part of them.
And above all, it’s about learning how to love!