Two new fiction works have made their way to my library. The March by E. L. Doctorow. This book was required reading for the Yale course by David W. Blight on the Civil War era which I mentioned here. I picked up a nice hardback used and am listening to it on my MP3 via download from the library.
In his historical novel, David H. Jones tells the story of the the Prentiss brothers, William and Clifton, who fight on opposite sides of the American Civil War. The primary narrator is era poet, Walt Whitman, who befriends a dying William in the military hospital at the close of the war. In the young Confederate’s final days, he recounts to Mr. Whitman his experiences which Whitman, in turn, finds opportunity to share with brother Clifton, a Union officer, who lies wounded in the same hospital. They are joined by family members who collect around Clifton following William’s death.
The story tells of young Southern men dashing off to join the fight and courageous Southern women who persuade politicos to contribute arms and supplies to Southern recruits and who even become blockade runners to ensure that those supplies reach the troops. We are witness to a number of key battles of the war, introduced to the weapons used, and generally educated about what it would have been like to serve in, primarily, the Confederate ranks. There is significantly less information provided through the storyline about the war experiences of brother Clifton and the Northern perspective.
What is unique about the novel is that the brothers featured were real and many will find the facts surrounding their lives, so carefully researched, intriguing. The presentation of the novel is also stylistically unique in that it is written using the formal language of the era.
I had the sense in reading Two Brothers that Jones struggled to nail down the book’s genre as he set about writing it. The work often resembles non-fiction with much “telling” of history rather than the “showing” of character-driven action and drama that makes for good fiction. While the “telling” made for interesting history, as a piece of fiction, the book was less than satisfying. That said, Civil War buffs will enjoy the military aspects of the book which are well researched.
A work of fiction can be judged by many criteria. My approach is pretty simple.
Did it keep my interest past page five?
Did I find myself wanting to set other pressing activities aside to return to the story?
Did the characters grab me?
Was the writing such that I could see what the characters see?
If a mystery, did it keep me guessing?
Did I learn something?
Was I a bit blue the day after I finished it because — I didn’t want to be finished?
Would I recommend it to family, friend, or colleague?
Here is my run down on Sweetsmoke. The numbered answers below correlate, of course, to the aforementioned questions above.
By the time I thought about whether the story had held my interest past page five, I’d just finished Chapter 5. Enough said on that one.
My finances remain in a growing “to do” pile.
The protagonist, Cassius Howard, was entirely satisfying as the central player in the story. I found particularly intriguing his relationship with his owner, Hoke Howard. And what a fresh idea to make the “sleuth” of the murder mystery that is the undercurrent of the story, a plantation slave.
I found Mr. Fuller’s descriptive writing excellent. His recounting of the Battle of Antietam (see Antietam National Battleground link here), was shockingly realistic and worth the price of the book alone. He is a master of “showing,” not telling. Well done.
The mystery’s twists and turns definitely kept me guessing. I won’t reveal anything here…
While I was familiar with the history, Mr. Fuller’s description of plantation life from the slave’s perspective was insightful. Many readers will benefit from the historical aspects of the book.
I am completely miffed that I don’t get to continue the story this evening.
I just this minute loaned my copy to my sister to read on her vacation. She and her daughter will likely fight over it. Vacation reading is sacred. Only the best.
I received a review copy of David Fuller’s Sweetsmoketoday from the good folks at Hyperion and very much look forward to reading it and passing along my impressions. Mr. Fuller is a screenwriter by profession. He has an interesting lineage of combatants in the American Civil War, which you can read more about on his website here.
This has moved very quickly up to the top of my reading stack for between terms. It is an aesthetically beautiful book. And I’m impressed by the weaving of fact into the story. I’m also hooked by the notion that poet Walt Whitman is the story’s glue. Can’t wait and more to come once I can put my feet up on the porch and enjoy.
By the way, Mr. Jones maintains a website here and a blog here which carries the same title as his book but covers more information. I’m adding it to my blogroll as I rather like the information and really do enjoy following the blogs or historical authors.
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher:Staghorn Press; First edition [February 1, 2008]