- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller
$24.95, Hyperion Press
310 pages
Reviewed by Martha M. Boltz

When reading this novel, I had to wonder about a white guy channeling the thoughts of a slave on a tobacco plantation in “old Virginia” in 1862.

The author, David Fuller, explains in his prologue that it was difficult for him (someone with ties to Confederate Virginia through a distant cousin, Col. Turner Ashby) to think as a slave would have thought. On balance, he seems to have achieved that, if indeed it is possible.

The words of his main protagonist, Cassius, never appear with quotation marks, a la Charles Frazier and “Cold Mountain,” and it can be equally confusing at times. In this book, the lack of quotation marks extends to any and all slaves, leaving this reviewer puzzled as to Mr. Fuller’s purpose.

The description of Cassius’ feelings and his keen wit as he seeks to please his master on the one hand while finding ways to defy him on the other bear careful scrutiny. Things are not what they seem, and he has been part of Sweetsmoke Plantation since childhood.

In his mind, he seems to juxtapose his familiarity with the household with the hidden fear that he will never achieve freedom and that he might be sold. Perhaps this was common and the duality was simply a matter of slave life. And maybe it wasn’t.

Cassius is a strong, determined slave, setting out on an almost Pyrrhic quest to find the murderer of Emoline Justice, a free black woman who nursed him back to health after a severe beating and taught him to read during his recovery.

Thus Cassius is imbued with more ability and stature than the average slave. His talent as a carpenter on Hoke Howard’s plantation is also emphasized, separating him from the “field hands” and allowing him certain flexibility and freedom to move around more than other slaves.

Emoline’s brutal murder, following the loss of Cassius’ wife and child, almost extinguishes any hope within him, but it is replaced with the determination to find her killer, regardless of the cost to him and regardless of who it may be.

Fuller’s narrative language leans heavily on the prosaic turn of phrase designed to impress the reader, so that the intentional brutality of the characters’ actions slides into the background. It shows in his description of a meeting with Maryanne, a friend of the murdered woman, as he says, “He watched Maryanne become more anxious as his questions continued. Her eyes rolled toward the windows, her fingers knotted and unknotted, and finally he let her go. She was out the front door and gone like a breath in the fog.”I realize some may find that trite and cliched.

When it turns out that Emoline’s murder may have had something to do with her activities as a spy for the North, gathering information on Southern troop movements, Cassius feels torn between the hoped-for success of the North, which will bring emancipation, and the resulting financial losses to his master, Hoke Howard.

There is neither love nor trust between them, even though they have been together since his childhood, yet the facade of loyalty exists.

Mr. Fuller recounts the white men’s lust for comely female slaves as well as the male slaves’ equally assiduous efforts to win the favor of one of their own. It makes one wonder how much work was done on these plantations, with the males of both races engrossed in the ever-present pursuit of sex.

The slaves as a whole are seen as being constantly manipulative of each other in the quest for the more desirable status as house workers or to bring reprimands and retribution on peers they happen not to like. Life is not all negative behind the big house, and the annual “To Do,” or celebration, is enjoyed by all the residents of Sweetsmoke.

Mr. Fuller’s attention to detail is admirable; he goes into impressive detail with the weather, the surroundings, the appearance and gestures of his characters and even the most minute details of their clothing. He not only paints a picture, he embellishes it. It leaves the reader hearing what the character hears and feeling what the character feels, not a bad thing for a beginning author.

He also employs gratuitous detail that leaves nothing to the imagination, which is almost a shame. Such detail when it comes to visualization of a naked slave woman being displayed for sale or the requisite surgery to effect “hobbling” of a runaway slave could well have been made less graphic or visceral and still achieved the necessary effect. That they are difficult to read is an understatement; the shock value is both intended and achieved.

Two-thirds of the way through, the book picks up and the story becomes even more interesting as Cassius leaves Sweetsmoke with the blessing of the plantation owner’s wife to search for her son, Jacob, who is with the Confederate army. From then on, it’s as if an antique car suddenly became supercharged.

Cassius’ quest is twofold: He has promised to bring young Jacob home to his dying father, and Mrs. Howard’s handwritten pass enables Cassius to go anywhere he wants to attempt to locate the man he has decided is Emoline’s killer.

Here, on the road, Cassius the man comes into his own, meeting soldiers from both sides, discovering surprising prejudice from Pennsylvania Bucktails and again questioning his ultimate quest for freedom.

It is in this last stage that the book comes alive. Twists and turns combine in a stunning climax that explains human determination and inhuman behavior in all of their nuances.

c Martha M. Boltz is a frequent contributor to the history page.

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