A review of The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey

Although the story of Sally Miller is fascinating enough to be read purely for the forward thrust of the plot, what makes this book worth a serious look is the way Bailey teases out all of the implications, and allows readers to make the connection between Sally’s case, and the “case” of us all.

Review by Magdalena Ball

The Lost German Slave Girl: The extraordinary true story of the slave Sally Miller and her fight for freedom
by John Bailey
Macmillan Australia
Sept 2003, trade paperback, ISBN 0732911923, rrpA$30

Pick any point in history, any story, and by focusing long and clearly enough, you will uncover some basic truths and key questions about what it means to be a human being. Although the story of Sally Miller is fascinating enough to be read purely for the forward thrust of the plot, what makes this book worth a serious look is the way Bailey teases out all of the implications, and allows readers to make the connection between Sally’s case, and the “case” of us all. Bailey’s prose is as clear and easy to read as the case is complex. The story roughly follows the trial of a slave, discovered on the steps of a New Orleans house by a woman, Madame Carl, who recognised her as the long lost daughter of her school friend Dorothea Muller. Salome Muller disappeared with her father and sister after a long and difficult migration from a cold famine torn Germany in 1817 during which Dorothea, her mother, died. Madame Carl brought the slave “Sally” into her New Orleans German community, where she is recognised, welcomed, and supported morally and financially in her struggle to obtain freedom. It is from the transcripts of the lengthy and difficult trial, and supportive evidence that Bailey pieces together the full story.

Bailey’s legal background is obvious as he is careful to allow his characters to speak for themselves, in dialects and words that conjure up the original voices. He presents evidence in a variety of forms, showing the alternative narratives, and the many threads of disparate facts while using his artistic skill to weave the story together in a way that makes sense: “Ultimately the telling of any story depends on the storyteller: it is the writer who makes the choice about what to select, what to reject and what to emphasise. The balance between truth or rhetoric is in his or her hands.” (xi) Through Bailey’s choices, the reader is drawn into Sally’s story. There are two main threads – the journey and enslavement of the German “Redemptioners,” and the world of Southern USA slavery into which they are drawn. The reader is given all of the elements of good fiction. There is the evocative setting of the starving 19th Century Germany, the crowded desperation of the migrants, dirty and waiting at the Amsterdam ports, and the appalling redemption documents they signed in order to secure their places on rotting and unsuitable carrier ships to America: “The immigrants had little choice but to sign. They were refugees trapped in a city weary of their presence, and in the months since leaving home, they had been stripped of their dignity and worn down by defeat and hardship.” (32) We also learn about the founding of New Orleans, and its distinctive character, from the original French settlement, its development as a powerful wharf city transporting cotton bales and other items of worth, and the impact of the many refuges from Saint-Domingue (Haiti). The reader is provided with a rich sense of the rich Catholic Creoles, tenaciously clinging “to an exaggerated mimicry of the social value of the ancient regime of pre-revolutionary France.” (56)

We also learn about the way in which society is classed into groups based on colour and degree of colour, from the Quadroon balls, to the many Codes and Laws decreeing rights and requirements for free people of colour, to those which defined and structured the way slavery worked, the way it descended to children of slaves, and about how a slave could or couldn’t become free. Again, the information which the book provides to readers is fascinating enough on its own, but in the context of a specific case, a specific individual, the book becomes quite powerful. It is Sally, also referred to as Mary, Salome, and Bridget, and the case around whether she is really the lost German girl, which drives the action forward. The reader is drawn into her story, and begins to examine the evidence like a juror, believing mostly that she is Salome, and wondering whether she will be freed. This is Bailey’s artful trick, which lures the reader in and allows the prejudices of the day to begin to work a kind of magic. Of course we feel like she should be freed if she is German rather than black. That is the crux of the case, and the evidence revolves around that. Like the Germans who rally around Sally, the reader also feels a kind of longing for her to be the missing girl, which is part of a very natural nostalgia.

Bailey’s final advocacy then is the clincher. While the book pushes us towards the climax, wondering, is she or isn’t she “innocent” – an illegally enslaved white woman – we begin to realise that innocence in this case is wholly subjective. Who was Sally Muller? Was she a white German, or a mulatto? Does she know where she comes from, or is she suffering from a kind of trauma induced amnesia? These questions push the story forward, but Bailey leaves the door open:

She was Salome Muller; she was Bridget Wilson; she was Mary Miller; she was Sally Miller; she was Sally Brigger; she was Polly Moore, she was Sally Hamilton. She was born on an unknown date; she was born in 1809; she was born in 1813; she was born in 1815. She was raised in Tatnall County, Georgia she was raised in Langensoultzbach, Alsace. She was a mulatto; she was part Amerindian; she was pure German; she was yellow; she was white….(256)

In the end, the mystery of Sally Muller is not whether she was white or black, or which side was ultimately right, although Bailey takes a crack at interpretation. It is the mystery of freedom and courage and how we define what it means to be a human being with human rights. Although the prose is so smooth and seamless and the story so well crafted that the lessons almost seem incidental, nevertheless Bailey’s extensive research uncovers a piece of history that illuminates the very nature of freedom and humanity.