Southern Tale: N.C. Life Following Civil War
Child of the South
By Joanna Scott
Berkley Books, 2009, $14
It is spring 1865. What Rebels called The Cause has been long lost, and the South is reeling from the aftereffects of the bloodiest war this nation has ever fought: poverty, destruction, worthless currency, and immense human loss.
North Carolina lost more soldiers than any other state. Former slaves are trying to figure out how to handle new freedom and make a living, with some, but not enough help from the Freedman's Bureau. Whites are attempting to reconcile themselves to defeat, with former gentry working to reclaim wealth and social standing, while poor whites just try to survive.
Eugenia Spotswood, once a lady of Wilmington society, has spent the past five years as a nurse, first at the gold mine where her father had hoped to regain his lost fortune, and later with the Red Strings, an undercover organization which helped wounded and escaped Union soldiers. Now she is back in Wilmington to investigate her uncertain parentage.
In Orange County, Clyde Bricket, a young poor white who fought for the Union and lost a leg for his efforts, feels incapable of handling his mother's farm. Bricket's family's former slave, Tom Maryson, invigorated by the education he received from Yankees in New Bern, holds his head high as he strives to build a good life for himself and his aged mother.
All of these characters appeared in Joanna Catherine Scott's earlier (and highly recommended) novel, "The Road to Chapel Hill," in which we saw them mature through their struggles of living in a culture where war had demolished not only property and lives, but social cohesion. Their lives, which became entangled in unexpected ways in the first novel, continue to do so in this one.
But a new "star" shines in much of the narrative: Abraham Galloway, who had escaped from slavery and returned to the South to help his people.
Galloway had appeeared only briefly in the first novel, encouraging Tom in his efforts to become literate and conflident. Here he has a much more vibrant role -- deservedly so, for he is based on the real Abraham Galloway, one of North Carolina's first three black senators and a delegate to the 1869 Constitutional convention.
In fact, historian/writer David Cecelski calls him "the most stirring black leader in the South during the Civil War and a guiding light for equal rights afterward." Scott's portray of him as a charismatic man brimming with self-confidence is congruent with historical descriptions.
An award-winning poet and novelist who can construct characters and scenes with equal vigor, Scott has constructed a compelling story of ordinary people who grow beyond their ordinariness in the extraordinary years of Reconstruction. Perhaps it requires a writer with her background -- although she lives in Chapel Hill, she grew up in England and Australia -- to have the proper perspective to analyze this crucial chapter of North Carolina's past.
Sally Buckner, a professor emerita at Peace College is a longtime reviewer for The Pilot. She makes her home in Cary.
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