Thursday, November 13, 2008
Sweetsmoke by David Fuller
As the Civil War tears a nation apart, Sweetsmoke gives us a glimpse into the life of Cassius, a clever favored slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. While countless lives are lost on both sides of the conflict, Cassius is concerned for only one, that of Emoline Justice, a woman who stepped in to save his life when he had hit rock bottom. Emoline nursed Cassius back to health both physically and mentally and in the process gives him the dangerous gift of literacy. Knowing that even in the best of times no one would care to seek the killer of a freed slave like Emoline, Cassius knows that if justice is to be done to Emoline's killer, he must do it himself. Cassius's single-minded quest to find Emoline's killer takes him to many places fraught with danger including the secret outpost of a hunted spy and even north to the front lines of a major Civil War battle between men who, in Cassius's experience, are altogether too similar.
Cassius is a supremely engaging character. He is a bold and intelligent character who with his keen perception can surmise the motives and the drives of those around him. He knows his value and yet he struggles with what it means to be only property, someone whose life can change completely depending on the failure of a crop or even bad luck at a hand of cards. With the relationship between Cassius and his master, Hoke Howard, Fuller explores the backward thinking behind the institution of slavery in which the benevolent slave-owner provides for the slave who, by his very nature, could never provide for himself. Using Cassius, a perhaps unusually clever slave, and Hoke, a perhaps on occasion unusually morally conflicted owner, Fuller turns this myth on its head as Cassius cunningly manipulates those around him and appears to be the smartest of all the characters. And yet, we never lose sight of the fact that despite the considerable liberties he might be able to take, Cassius's existence is fragile, and that he is, at the end of the day, lacking one crucial aspect - freedom.
If Mr. Plume was ever to become Cassius's owner, Cassius would never again have the opportunity to consider independent action. He would be driven night and day and if he exhibited reticent behavior, this Mr. Plume would reach down inside Cassius with a sharp-edged spoon and scrape out of him any small dreams of freedom that he might have accrued. He was relieved when Mr. Plume looked away, but felt a raw sensations inside his chest that lingered.
Fuller spares no detail in his depiction of the Civil War era south. Though obviously carefully constructed with extreme care shown even down to the punctuation of the dialogue (quotation marks for the free, none for the slaves), the writing never feels forced or contrived. Instead, Fuller's Civil War south leaps off the page exposing a world populated with fragile southern gentility perched precariously on their clever, if oppressed, chattel. Through Cassius's eyes and Fuller's evocative writing, we can feel the heat of mid-summer in Virginia, smell the sweet scent of tobacco on the air, and even hear the sounds of a raging Civil War battle as if we were experiencing them first-hand.
This was killing on an impossible scale, and Cassius could not wrap his brain around the images in front of his eyes. He tried to remember that each one of these men had a life, a family, mother, father, children, fears and hopes and ideas; each one worked and dreamed and had once been a child, and now screamed in astonished agony. He lost his sense of reality, as if his intelligence shut down to preserve him from such madness. Unable to comprehend the meaning of such an immense horror, he began to see falling men as unreal, no different than the soldiers he carved. These were white men being killed by white men who were the same but for the color of their uniforms; mindfully, purposefully slaughtering one another by the dozens, by the score, by the hundreds, by the thousands. Cassius saw how easy it was to devastate a man's body and rob him of his valuable life. And yet, those who survived remained on the battlefield and fought on.
Cassius's mystery comes to an unexpected and satisfying, if not pleasant, conclusion. However, the heart of this book is not in the mystery. The heart of it lies in the character of Cassius and in the world in which he lives which is brought fully to life. Sweetsmoke does just what great historical fiction should do. It transports us to a time and place that we will never be able to experience and makes us feel as if we are experiencing it, not just being told about it in a book. Well done.
Definitely one of my top reads of the year.