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.


  1. I am so moved by your review of my novel Sweetsmoke. Thank you for your careful reading and insight. It truly warms the spirit of this writer.

    I would like to mention that the lack of quotation marks affects only slaves. Freed blacks have quotation marks (Richard Justice, Ralph) as well as whites.

    Again, my thanks.

  2. You're most welcome - my pleasure. And thank you!

    Now that you mention the quotation mark thing, I definitely do remember the quotation marks for the freed blacks. I've changed the review to reflect it - thanks for reminding me!

  3. Thank you for such a wonderful review, Megan. I've been considering whether I want to read this one or not and now I'm certain that I do.

  4. Thanks for the review. One of my top genres is Civil War era (fiction and nonfiction). This book was new to me. It's going on my TBR pile. How cool is it that David Fuller stopped by?

  5. What an insightful review! I already have this one on my wish list, but I'm going to move it to the top.

  6. What a great review! I really enjoyed this book as well (though I haven't written a review yet). I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't even notice the quotation marks. Thank you for drawing my attention to it!

  7. This looks great.

    I wanted to thank you for stopping by my blog earlier and leaving a comment. I didn't know if you'd be back to follow up the conversation. But I wanted to answer your question:

    Lynn Austin is a consistent writer who I rank among my favorites in all genres. Her novel A Woman's Place and Until We Reach Home are two that I've reviewed here on my site. She also has a series of novels that follow Judah's Kings and Prophets. I've read the first one...and the second. Here's the the third. They're good too.

    If you do happen to like pioneer stories (some do, some don't) I like Sharlene MacLaren. She's got a series out of three books (The first two are Loving Liza Jane and Sarah, My Beloved. The third is Courting Emma.) These may not appeal to everyone. They are a bit predictable. But in this case, they appeal to me in a satisfying-feel-good way. Like eating comfort food.

    I love DeeAnne Gist. Courting Trouble and Deep In The Heart of Trouble are both good. Set in Texas. I want to say turn of the century--1890ish. And also The Measure of A Lady and A Bride Most Begrudging.

    I also like Francine Rivers. Especially her Sons of Encouragement series. Though some of the books in the series I loved more than others. She's written so much, but I've only read a few.

    Cathy Marie Hake is also good. I really liked her novel, Bittersweet.

    Liz Curtis Higgs has a fun series. It begins with A Thorn In My Heart, then Fair is the Rose, then Whence Came A Prince. I believe there is one more loosely connected with it. But I haven't read it yet.

    I've had some good luck with Lauraine Snelling too. And Lawana Blackwell.

  8. LF & Carrie, thanks and glad to hear it! =)

    Beth - it's too cool that David Fuller stopped by. Glad I got to introduce you to a new Civil War book for your collection. =)

    Laura - Sure thing. I don't know that I would have noticed it except non-standard quotation marking is such a huge pet peeve of mine that when I see it, I'm always hoping to see a good reason for it so that it won't drive me crazy. Turned out Sweetsmoke *did* have a good reason!

    Becky - Thanks so much for responding to my question. I'll definitely be checking out the books and authors you recommended and hopefully will come away with some good new reading material and a much better impression of the Christian fiction genre!