Saturday, March 10, 2012
Review - Slant of Light by Steve Wiegenstein
Short review: An idealist with no real skills in running a community establishes a Utopian society on a riverbank in Missouri as the U.S. Civil War looms. And then the war comes and everyone has to choose sides.
Meet cold and hard reality
During a harsh war
Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.
Full review: Slant of Light is a work of historical fiction that highlights two areas of history that seem to be not as well known as they should be: the bitter conflict between pro- and anti-slavery forces that bubbled beneath the surface in Missouri and other western states in the antebellum period which finally erupted into a dirty guerrilla war once the U.S. Civil War commenced, and the optimistic idealism that resulted in the establishment of Utopian communities that dotted the western landscape amidst the burgeoning strife. In the story, James Turner, having written a novel about a fictional South Pacific community that lives a simple, peaceful lifestyle of shared labor and shared wealth, finds himself heading to Missouri to launch a colony based on the principles outlined in his book, despite having no particularly useful skills for such an endeavor.
This contradiction in Turner's character sets the tone for the book: Although Turner has written a book that espouses high ideals and has sparked the imaginations of many people who yearn for the life that he describes in his text, he seems remarkably ill-suited for actually making the dream he spun into a reality. In addition to his lack of practical farming skills, which one would assume would be critically useful when establishing an agricultural colony, Turner seems to have few abilities other than being a competent writer, typesetter, and compelling speaker. And, it turns out, that despite being charged with founding and running a colony built on idealistic principles, Turner is unable to actually live those idealistic principles, paralleling to a certain extent the experiences of Thomas Jefferson. Much like Jefferson, Turner finds that he enjoys democracy in principle much more than he likes it in practice. Much like Jefferson, he finds himself opposed to slavery in principle, but accepting of it in practice. When confronted with the inherent unfairness of male-only suffrage in the colony, he balks at allowing women to vote in colony matters. In large part, the story of Slant of Light is the collision of soaring idealism and crushing reality.
And the experiences of the colony of Daybreak seem to reflect the experiences of Missouri, and indeed the entire nation as a whole. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the personage of abolitionist Adam Cabot, who is tarred and feathered and narrowly escapes being lynched for his political activities in Kansas and is persuaded to travel to Daybreak by Charlotte Turner, James' pretty and down-to-Earth bride. Eastern born and educated, Cabot exposes the same weak adherence to ideals that the pro-slavery forces in the West share with Turner: they want democracy, but only so long as their own viewpoint wins. Any other result is unacceptable. Cabot is the idealist that Turner pretends to be, and every time that Turner stumbles and falls short of the principles he espouses, it seems that Cabot makes the morally correct choice. This contrast between Turner and Cabot, two men so similar in so many ways, and yet so divergent in others, is the most interesting element of the book.
And further contrasting Cabot's idealism is his fellow abolitionist Lysander Smith, who appears to be an abolitionist in name only. Born and educated in the East, just like Cabot, Smith comes to Daybreak as a result of a deal that Turner makes to secure cash for the money-starved colony. But Smith appears to regard his endeavors to be something of a lark or an adventure of no consequence to enjoy before returning to the real world of Philadelphia and home. But in this, Lysander has made what turns out to be a fatal miscalculation, which makes Turner's more practical approach to living in Missouri seem prudent. In the end, Smith's fate, and ultimately the resolution of Cabot's personal story seem to be contrasting, albeit in some ways aligned commentaries on the dangers of holding, or even merely falsely espousing, ideals that others might not agree with.
And even further contrasting Cabot is the man who adheres to no ideals: the sour and shiftless backwoodsman Harp Webb, who holds a grudge against the Daybreak colony due to the fact that it is founded upon land that his father George had gifted to Turner, and which Harp considers to be his rightful inheritance. In some ways, Harp is little more than a plot complication, existing in the story primarily to hang a cloud over the title to Daybreak's land, but in others, he represents the forces of indifference and conservatism that would hinder the development of an alternative way of life. But in the end, Harp's story is the story of the dedicated bystander who is caught in events larger than himself and swept along anyway. Once again, the story of the individual - Harp - is reflected in a way in the story of the community, as Daybreak also tries to shy away from involvement in the fight over slavery, but finds itself reminded that when all of your neighbors are at war, eventually the fight will show up on your doorstep.
But in Missouri, the Civil War wasn't a matter of vast armies fighting each other using modern weapons and outdated Napoleonic tactics, as brutal and horrific as that form of was. Instead, the war in the West was largely a darker, dirtier matter of midnight murder, thievery, and rape in which one is as likely to be brutalized by those who are on that same "side" as you ideologically as one is likely to be victimized by the enemy. This was a conflict in which ambushing an unsuspecting rider in the woods in the dark and beating them to death with an ax handle became not a crime, but rather a duty. And a conflict in which you had as much to fear from the people you pass in the street on your way to buy flour as you had to fear the soldiers in the armed camp outside of town. Through the book Wiegenstein makes good use of this chaotic background to create an unsettled atmosphere and a sense of danger that hangs over the Daybreak community almost from the very outset of the story.
It is this layering of the story in which the personal, the local, and the national events reflect one another as each person is faced with choices that test them on every level and test their commitment to their own ideals. Even Turner's own personal betrayal stemming from his personal ambivalence towards his own ideals, which forms one of the central plot developments of the story, is, in a sense, reflected in the larger conflict as Missouri tears itself apart from within as a result of the ambivalence many Americans feel towards the ideas their nation was founded upon. As Turner seeks forgiveness for his actions, one can see the glimmer of hope for a reconciliation between the various factions struggling for control of Missouri, and for the warring components of the United States as a whole. By creating flawed, but ultimately compelling characters and setting them against one another in a conflict in which there are varying degrees of right and wrong on most sides, Wiegenstein has produced a novel that opens a window on an era of American history and gave it the human face necessary to make it seem real for the reader. Put simply, this is a strong piece of historical fiction that allows the reader to get inside the issues and beliefs that drove the people to make the decisions that resulted, in a small way, in the country that emerged from the Civil War.
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