Boss Babe: A Review of Island Queen by Vanessa Riley
Updated: Feb 22
Hello, Book Nerds! Welcome back to Reading Has Ruined My Life or welcome if you are new. As always, my name is Hannah and I am your captain on this journey into my bookcases.
Have you ever heard of a woman by the name of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas? Yes? No? Maybe so? Well I didn’t until recently, and let tell you something, this woman is the first Boss Babe. She invented Rise and Grind culture. She is a QUEEN! And the only reason I know who she is, is because of a book.
Meet Island Queen by Vanessa Riley. This historical fiction novel is an epic tale based upon Dorothy Kirwan Thomas’ extraordinary life.
Also, the book cover is so gorgeous that I simply had to do a makeup look inspired by it.
Remember to follow RHRML on Twitter and Instagram, @RHRMLBlog and @ReadingHasRuinedMyLife respectively, to see my makeup looks there first. I post memes on occasion, lots of book news, and you can see what I’m currently reading and may be reviewing in the near future.
Back to Island Queen now. I loved this book. It only gives small snapshots of Dorothy Kirwan Thomas’ long life, but I was entranced by every word. So let’s get into it.
As always, a spoiler alert is in order; I spoil a lot of the books I read so you’ve been warned. I also must issue a content and trigger warning. Dorothy Kirwan Thomas was the daughter of a plantation owner and enslaved woman. A good chunk of this book discusses slavery and all the atrocities that happened to enslaved people. I’m sure you’ve guessed by Dorothy’s parentage and the fact that this book discusses slavery, but rape and sexual assault occurs in this book. This happens to literal children to make things even worse. There is also incest. There is no avoiding these topics so read this book at your own discretion. And with that, let’s get to the synopsis.
Dorothy Kirwan was born in 1756 on the Caribbean island of Montserrat. Her mother and father were not together, her father was the plantation owner and her mother was enslaved. As a child, she didn’t understand the tension between her parents, why she was treated differently by others, or why her older half-brother hated her and never viewed her as a sister. Spoiler, Nicholas, Dorothy’s half-brother, is an absolute piece of shit and I cheered when he died.
As she grows up, she begins to understand the world around her. She also faces many hardships but through it all she focuses on her family and manages to buy their freedom. She really said rise and grind. Let me list just a few things that Dorothy does in order to make money. Sells blankets and pottery her mom and sister craft at markets, does housekeeping, and trains other women to be housekeepers just to name a few things.
Dorothy’s business empire does not stop here. Upon gaining her and her family’s freedom, she builds multiple businesses from the ground up. She opens hotels, has over a hundred housekeepers she has trained under her employee, she has storefronts full of high quality, luxury English goods, and she becomes a plantation owner herself. All while falling in love and having a dozen children. Dorothy had it all. By the end of her life, she was one of the wealthiest and most powerful landowners in all of the West Indies.
How have I never heard of this woman!? She is amazing! Like, I bow down to her. She’s truly a queen. But she’s still human. She’s not perfect and Vanessa Riley, the author, really shows that. Dorothy owned a plantation and did own people; not cool, for that she sucks but I’m still enthralled by her life. And please don’t think I’m excusing her for her participation in slavery, I’m not, but I do admire her strong will and motivations; everything she did was in order to build a legacy and provide for her large family in a time when everything was against women and people of color.
I’m going to make a quick note right here regarding Dorothy’s large family. Dorothy has close to a dozen kids throughout the course of the novel. Then those kids go on to have kids. There are a lot of names. A lot of characters. They live all over the place. It’s easy to lose track of who’s who. It sucks because there is such a large focus on Dorothy’s devotion to her family and the relationship she has with them. A family tree would have been greatly appreciated.
Now let’s talk about the framing of this novel. One chapter typically shows a snapshot into a year of her life. Readers follow Dorothy from when she’s five-years-old to1824 when she's 68. While this novel does not paint the full picture of her life, she lived until 1846 and there’s no way this woman retired quietly, this novel definitely gives readers a good look at her life. I do wish that some chapters were expanded upon though. There are a decent amount of chapters where readers are only given a brief glimpse into that year. A lot of the time these chapters don’t offer too much to the story at large and feel repetitive in the long run. I would have preferred if the story was streamlined a tad bit more and more focus put onto Dorothy building her business empire.
That’s an aspect readers don’t really see. Vanessa Riley certainly tells us Dorothy has been busy, but there are really no scenes featuring this. There are scenes where her business acumen is on full display; i.e. when she’s having marriage contracts drawn up to protect her daughters from men who just want the ladies for their mom’s money and when she’s buying her and her family’s freedom from her father. Sadly those scenes are few and far between. I would have liked to see more focus on her growing her businesses. Hearing about them are nice, but seeing it would be better.
There is one more thing I do wish I saw more of throughout the novel. The fashion! Island Queen has the best imagery I’ve read so far this year! Specifically the imagery regarding all the materials used for clothing. The focus on clothing and materials is a major through line of the novel that designates wealth and class, and I’m obsessed with it.
At the start of the novel, there is a large distinction made between the rough cloth Dorothy wears as an enslaved child and silks and satins free women wear. As time progresses, Dorothy gains wealth and she too wears the embroidered silks and lace favored by the upper classes. The imagery doesn’t stop there. In correlation to her character, Dorothy wears gowns in vibrant yellows and blues, with hand painted prints that relate to her African heritage. Her clothing is a bridge between her past self, heritage, and the present.
And don’t get me started on the hat imagery and what they represent in this novel. The fashion imagery is just *chef’s kiss* and is my favorite part of this whole book. I love historical fashion, I love it being described in great detail, and I love what it all represents in this case.
Island Queen took me for a ride. A ride I immensely enjoyed. While there are certainly aspects that can be improved upon, learning about the icon who is Dorothy Kirwan Thomas trumps them all. If you enjoy learning about extraordinary women of history, this one is for you.
With that, I must bid you all adieu. I shall see you next week with another new review, and maybe another Books&Lewks look; we shall see about that.
Until then, stay safe, wash your hands, and read some good books for me.