Nicole Seitz says that her latest novel was inspired by a Forbes article about child labor. Imagining what it would be like if her own children were working under debt bondage at a rock quarry in India (or somewhere equally harsh), she started writing Beyond Molasses Creek, which hit shelves last week.
The book switches between two stories on opposite sides of the world. Our main focus is Ally Green, a former flight attendant now in her 60s who's returned home to Mt. Pleasant following the death of her father. After decades of exotic adventures, she has some trouble adjusting back to suburban life, and she spends most of her time daydreaming about Vesey Washington, her neighbor across the creek. Despite their racial differences — she's white and he's black — the pair grew up as friends, and Ally has harbored a love for him her entire life.
The other story, told in brief snippets, follows Sunila, a young woman who's just escaped a life of slavery in Nepal. Carrying a mysterious sketchbook she took from her former boss, she travels through a monsoon to Kathmandu in a desperate attempt to learn more about her past.
The two tales are so dramatically different, with only a word or image linking them between transitions, that the first half of the book feels disjointed as we wonder how they could possibly be related. Halfway through, however, things start to come together as we recognize the link between the two women. Although Ally is lost in memories of her childhood with Vesey, Sunila has made some important discoveries about her past that dramatically affect her future.
Though Sunila's story starts out slowly, it ultimately becomes the more interesting of the two as she makes it to the U.S. Embassy and solves the mystery of where she came from. Ally's story follows the opposite path — we're initially intrigued by hints of a hot and heavy past with Vesey, but it turns out that their relationship didn't really extend beyond their early teens.
The couple's bond is based on clandestine childhood meetings on Molasses Creek; their parents didn't approve, though the children's time together was innocent. When they are discovered together in their teens, Vesey is shipped off to live with his uncle on Johns Island. He drops out of school and becomes a farmer while Ally heads off to college. Years later, he sells newspapers on the road outside of Whole Foods (yes, he's supposed to be that guy) and helps Ally settle back into her childhood home. Despite the years that have passed, Ally still seems stuck on their differences, and most of their interactions are awkward. "This is Vesey, Ally Green," she thinks. "The boy you played with when you were little, the one who was off limits because you are white and he is not. Vesey Washington. This is the South and always will be. Remember that." With their slang and frequent Southernisms ("Dad-gum!"), the two characters often feel like caricatures. Ally also has a habit of making us roll our eyes with statements like, "I like my coffee dark, strong, and potent ... like my men."
It's a sweet tale of unrequited love that might possibly be requited after all, but it's also a bit sad to think of a grown woman-of-the-world spending her entire life pining for a childhood crush. It seems even sillier when we figure out the connection between Ally and Sunila; you'd think Ally might have spent a little more time pining for someone else.
Although we see the conclusion coming — and there's no doubt that it's coming — halfway through the book, it takes awhile for it all to wrap up in a neat little package. When it does, and — spoiler alert — the former Nepalese slave girl is effortlessly settling into her life in suburban South Carolina, it all feels a little unbelievable. But you can't help but be happy for the characters, who, after years of searching, having finally found their way home.