“Tu ikiwa uko huru.” Dorothy “Doll” Kirwin Thomas’ mantra in Vanessa Riley’s historical novel, Island Queen, means, “Only if you’re free, then you can be.” Born into slavery in the colonial West Indies, the real Thomas fought for freedom at a time when she was barely seen as human. “I’m luckier, I guess. My black is beautiful,” Doll says, in response to the suggestion that she—a dark-skinned Creole woman with an Irish father—should feel cheated that she can’t pass as white.
Instead of writing a just-the-facts biography, Riley gives Doll a chance to tell her own harrowing story. Doll is given agency, reveling in the forbidden love she shares with John Coseveldt Cells, a wealthy planter with a secret of his own. While tame, the couple’s bodice-ripping should still excite Bridgerton fans, all while laying bare the shrewdness it takes and the loneliness that comes with shattering glass ceilings—especially as a woman of color. It spoils nothing to say Doll ends up on top, becoming one of the richest women in the early 1800s Caribbean. But Island Queen is focused on her journey, not her destination.
By Shannon Carlin
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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