Writing non-fiction about the Civil War is hard because there are tens of thousands of historical sources, many of them first-hand accounts, that must be reviewed. Writing a novel about a runaway slave and a caucasian orphan from the swamps of North Carolina in the early days of the Civil War is perhaps even more difficult because no amount of fact checking will make the writing more believable if the author is not able to channel the voices of those demanding to be heard. Wallace King clearly heard those voices and she has crafted a believable, engrossing novel.
Hawk Bledsoe is the slave son of a white plantation owner who whips him because he has learned to read. Bledsoe, however, doesn't just know how to read, he has an extraordinary intellect and an eidetic memory that allows him to read a book once and then recite it from memory. He has even named himself after the protagonist in his favorite book, The Last of the Mohicans. As Bledsoe learns, a literate slave strikes terror into the hearts of slave owners.
After fleeing the plantation and slavery, intending to join Lincoln's army, Bledsoe finds himself waylaid by a snake bite in the "Dismal" swamp on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. A ragged, dirty, wild girl saves him using herbal medicine that she learned how to make while apprenticed to the "old witch" in the swamp. The girl, Alice Brown, has freed herself from abusive servitude to the old woman and insists on tagging along with Bledsoe. Enraged at being slowed down, Bledsoe finds himself caught by slave hunters who also mistake Alice for a runaway slave. Dressed in rags since she was a child, Alice is outraged at being chained, but also enchanted with the new, cheap dress the slave hunter has clad her in as he readies the pair for re-sale. Alice and Bledsoe manage to flee the slave traders, encountering the lynching of Union soldiers in Norfolk, and riots against the North in Baltimore. Seeking safety in the Blue Ridge Mountains, they find themselves conscripted as slaves serving the Confederate army which, unfortunately, has encamped nearby.
For a short while, after escaping the military, Alice and Bledsoe find refuge from slavery and slave owners. The wild Alice is tamed by a gentile, old south family, and Bledsoe finds himself assisting a sophisticated Northern spy under cover in Richmond. Their stories are fascinating, but we are left wanting more. Who was Alice? We learn from her vague memories that the old woman was made her guardian after her mother died aboard the ship from Ireland to America. What became of Bledsoe and his extraordinary intellect? King provides intriguing story hints that leap off the page begging to be told in more depth
In this novel, King manages to bring the depravity of the Civil War to life. While polite society drank tea in Richmond, the rivers bordering the battlegrounds turned red with blood. Most importantly, King brings to life the gut wrenching evil of slavery that southern slave owners justified by de-humanizing their slaves. This is a novel worth reading.
(In return for an honest review, I received an advance copy from the publisher via NetGalley.)
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing (May 24, 2016)