Mustard Seed by Laila Ibrahim

Mustard Seed by Laila Ibrahim

Laila Ibrahim comes to the blog today with a Reconstruction era story of two families, split during the Civil war. Not quite knowing what I expected from this book, I can assure you that days after reading I am still processing and thinking about my reactions. Please read on for my review of

Mustard Seed

This is a story told in two perspectives: both colored and influenced by the issue of slavery and the Civil War. Set in the Reconstruction area, both Lisbeth and Jordan live in Oberlin Ohio in 1868, even if their situations couldn’t be more different, or more similar. Lisbeth left her family and home in Virginia to marry a man of her own choosing, an abolitionist, and head north to start their life. Growing up on a tobacco plantation, she was expected to marry and remain solidly a daughter of the south, maintaining the status quo. Jordan, the youngest child of her mother Mattie, never knew or truly understood the hold that slavery held over her parents and brother: although born into slavery, on the same plantation that Lisbeth lived, she never really understood her mother’s stories about Lisbeth or life in the south, even as she repeatedly heard the stories of her mother’s flight to Ohio to join her husband Emmanuel and her son Samuel. Living a free life, Jordan and her brother Samuel both took advantage of educational opportunities for university and freedom of choice: him to be a lawyer, she to be a teacher. In fact, Lisbeth is teaching in a non-segregated school, with Lisbeth’s daughter Sadie as one of her pupils. But, Jordan wants more: the talk about offering voting rights to the recently freed slaves does not include women, and Jordan is a strong believer in women’s right and duty to vote. She’s been planning to work with a woman’s rights organization in New York, a plan she has yet to share with her parents.

And then there is Lisbeth: her parents were furious when she broke an understanding with a man of their choosing to marry Matthew and head north. While she’s missing her parents, guilty for disappointing them, and concerned for their well-being, her first visit home when her son Samuel was an infant: her mother’s callous and cold treatment mirrored her childhood and recriminations for her beliefs, choices and what her family saw as abandonment and rejection left her reeling. But, ever the dutiful daughter, her mother’s letter containing news of her father’s illness and a request that she return to sit vigil spur her planned trip to visit her family, bringing her two young children (Samuel, 9 and Sadie, 6) along to see their grandparents and where she grew up. Simultaneously, Mattie has decided that she, her son and daughter will take a wagon back to Virginia, to convince her niece Sarah to return to Ohio with them.

A journey fraught with new revelations and understanding: both Lisbeth and Jordan are convinced that now the war is over and emancipation the law of the land that slavery and the inequities based on nothing more than race and antiquated beliefs are over. Never did either expect nor allow for the hatred and anger that remain: that ingrained belief of many (then and now) that there is an inbred and biological superiority held by whites, and that their way of life, made possible by slave labor and impossible by actually paying for the labor that works their plantations. Jordan believes that her mother, while loving her to bits, is overly cautious and fearful for their safety in returning, and Lisbeth hopes that her return will herald a new start for her relationship with her mother and brother as she says goodbye to her father.

From the tension and guilt that Lisbeth carries, worries about her mother and their welcome, the questions and reactions her children will have, the emotions brought back from being home and the constant guilt trip from her parents’ reduced circumstances and the shock when she realizes that circumstances haven’t truly changed: her family still clings to the ‘old ways’, her mother’s behavior more erratic than ever, and even her children are full of questions that she can’t always answer. For Jordan – from the first meeting with overseers to experiencing the slave quarters in which her cousin Sarah lives, the ineffective (if mostly well-meaning) function of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and the capture and imprisonment of her brother under the questionable claim of ‘vagrancy’ start to show her the error of her beliefs. From the first page until the last, Ibrahim manages to maintain levels of emotional tension that never quite disappear: bringing the concept of a country (and families) torn apart over the mistaken belief in the right to own another human being for one’s own purpose. The strength and faith that Mattie clings to is remarkable to behold, her simple and well-defined faith in the rightness of her convictions and actions, her openness and enduring love for her family and children, and the affection she carries for Lisbeth – a child not of her flesh but one she cared for as her own nonetheless influence the impact of this story in human terms. The facts are there for anyone to access, but it is the emotional impact of the telling and showing here that put this firmly into the favorites.

All in all, the complex issues of change can be told in Mattie’s words;

“That’ all most of us get – being a little drop of water. A few folks get to do somethin’ big like Mister Lincoln an’ the Emancipation Proclamation. God givin’ you a chance to help a child know they own name. It a little somethin’, but it gonna matter to that one. We don’ get to pick how big our good get to be, but each of us picks if we gonna do some good right where we are…..If enough people put their drop of water in the same place, then we can make a flower bloom . . .right in the middle of a desert.”

Mustard Seed by Laila Ibrahim

Title: Mustard Seed
Author: Laila Ibrahim
Genre: African-American, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Setting: American
Published by: Lake Union Publishing
ISBN: 1542045568
Published on: 7 November, 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 284
Audio Length: 9 Hours: 7 minutes
Rated: five-stars
Get Your Copy: Amazon Barnes&Noble iTunes Downpour IndieBound Book Depository Audible
See this Title on Goodreads

The bestselling author of Yellow Crocus returns with a haunting and tender story of three women returning to the plantation they once called home.

Oberlin, Ohio, 1868. Lisbeth Johnson was born into privilege in the antebellum South. Jordan Freedman was born a slave to Mattie, Lisbeth’s beloved nurse. The women have an unlikely bond deeper than friendship. Three years after the Civil War, Lisbeth and Mattie are tending their homes and families while Jordan, an aspiring suffragette, teaches at an integrated school.

When Lisbeth discovers that her father is dying, she’s summoned back to the Virginia plantation where she grew up. There she must face the Confederate family she betrayed by marrying an abolitionist. Jordan and Mattie return to Fair Oaks, too, to save the family they left behind, who still toil in oppression. For Lisbeth, it’s a time for reconciliation. For Jordan and Mattie, it’s time for liberation.

As the Johnsons and Freedmans confront the injustice that binds them, as well as the bitterness and violence that seethes at its heart, the women must find the courage to free their families—and themselves—from the past.

A copy of this title was provided via Publisher via NetGalley for purpose of honest review. I was not compensated for this review: all conclusions are my own responsibility.


About Laila Ibrahim

Laila Ibrahim spent much of her career as a preschool director, a birth doula, and a religious educator. That work, coupled with her education in developmental psychology and attachment theory, provided ample fodder for the stories in Mustard Seed and Yellow Crocus. She’s a devout Unitarian Universalist, determined to do her part to add a little more love and justice to our beautiful and painful world. She lives with her wonderful wife, Rinda, in a small cohousing community in Berkeley, California with two other families. Her amazing young adult children, Kalin and Maya, are kind enough to text, FaceTime, and call her on a regular basis. Laila is blessed to be working full-time as a novelist. When she isn’t writing, she likes to walk with friends, do jigsaw puzzles, play games, work in the garden, travel, cook, and eat all kinds of delicious food.


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