Marley, by Jon Clinch**-***

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy of Marley, a retelling of the Dickens classic told from a different point of view. This book is for sale now.

This work of historical fiction took off with a bang, and then fizzled.

I have not read any of Clinch’s earlier work, and at the outset of this novel, I am electrified by his prose. I love a good word smith, and Clinch’s facility with figurative language is impressive as hell. I was ready for a good Christmas book, and the October release date was right on the money. I snuggled beneath my favorite fleece blanket and immersed myself, savoring the clever phrasing and rereading parts of it before moving on.

There are two aspects of this work that hold it back; one is a quibble, but one worth mentioning, and the other is more significant. The quibble is that so much of the story isn’t about Marley. We know about Scrooge. If the author wants to write about Scrooge from a different angle, then the book’s title should reflect it. Instead, Marley’s effort at winning Scrooge’s sister Fan pulls us back into the Scrooge family, and there we stay for long stretches of the book. I echo other reviewers in asking, “But what about Marley?”

My larger objection, one that took awhile to gel as I read and ultimately prevents my recommending this book, is that the entire premise, the sacred message imparted by Dickens, is ground beneath Clinch’s authorly heel as he reframes Marley as a forger, smuggler, and criminal of the highest order. Dickens, in writing the original story, took pains to demonstrate that it is possible to be a “sound man of business,” to function entirely within the letter of the law, and still be morally bankrupt. A Christmas Carol was written to let readers know that those that succeed in legally building fortunes may nevertheless be damned if they are unwilling to extend themselves, whether through private charity or humane governmental programs. Scrooge made a point of telling his nephew that he pays his taxes, after all, and that’s the end of it.

In painting Marley as a man that brings money into the partnership through a multitude of illegal practices, Clinch not only ignores Dickens’s timeless moral and social message, but torches it, leaving only so much ash and cinder.

The chains that bind Marley in the afterlife reflect the chains of human bondage in his corporal one, as he invests the assets of Scrooge and Marley in slave ships, is a lovely literary device. I wish the author had found a way to use it without laying waste to the heart and soul of a timeless classic whose message is needed more today than ever.

Not recommended.

The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates****

By now, nearly everyone that loves reading has heard of this debut novel by one of the century’s most celebrated writers. Not every strong journalist can also write fiction, but Coates can. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Random House. It’s for sale now.

The concept is a strong one. Why have we seen so little historical fiction set during the period just before the American Civil War and from the point of view of a slave? In an earlier essay Coates has pointed out that African-Americans need to reclaim this time period, that shrinking back from studying it is in a way a concession that shouldn’t be given. That’s the perspective on which this novel is built. It isn’t an easy read by any means; readers need strong literacy skills and a cast iron gut. The level of pain and violence—especially at the outset—is wrenching, and it should be. I took a long time to read this book because I could only swallow it in small portions. You may not want it for mealtime or bedtime reading.

Our protagonist is Hiram Walker, and he is the progeny of an enslaved mother and the plantation’s owner. Hiram is strong, capable, and attractive. When his father pulls him from the “tasked” and brings him home, other slaves warn him to be on his guard; he will never be considered a full member of this family, and he’ll never be considered an equal with Maynard, his Caucasian half-brother whose work ethic, talent, and intelligence could fit together in a thimble with room to spare. Hiram is assigned to prevent Maynard from going off the rails; however, since the authority runs in the opposite direction, Hiram is ultimately unable to save Maynard, who drowns after overindulging.

Hiram has an unusual gift, a supernatural talent that lends interest to the story without becoming its central focus.

Ultimately our protagonist is going to have to run for his freedom. During the years just before the Civil War, owners of large plantations in Virginia and the Carolinas find themselves in desperate straits. The land has been badly over farmed, and both cotton and tobacco are demanding crops. The soil is used up; farmland that once produced bountifully is no longer productive. The solution that most of the large owners seize is to expand their holdings westward. Vast numbers of slaves are either sold and sent to the deep South “Natchez Way” or moved there to work for the same owner on different land. Those that go are treated severely, and their families are fragmented without a moment’s hesitation. While some slaves were able to negotiate for their own manumission in earlier years, this option is no longer on the table. Coates does a stellar job keeping this aspect of his story consistent with historical fact.

Hiram’s escape is ultimately successful after a number of nightmarish experiences, but he is persuaded to return and to assist in the Underground Railroad, and he does so partly with the goal of freeing those that mean the most to him. Along the way he meets Harriet Tubman, and the way Coates depicts her is credible and fascinating. But the thing I love most, apart from the story’s basis and the eloquent word-smithery that shines here and there, is the way Coates condemns the hypocrisy, the culture of the slaveowner that makes the most horrible men able to look at themselves in the mirror and like what they see:

For it is not simply that you are captured by slavery, but by a kind of fraud, which paints its executors as guardians at the gate, staving off African savagery, when it is they themselves who are savages, who are Mordred, who are the Dragon, in Camelot’s clothes. And at that moment of revelation, of understanding, running is not a thought, not even as a dream, but a need, no different than the need to flee a burning house.

My one concern is with the dialogue. This historical tale will spin along beautifully, but then one person will tell another, “Trust me on that,” or “Sounds like a piece of work to me,” and the effect this has on me as a reader is that the spell is broken, and I am no longer transported to the time and place of the story.  And to be sure, everyone that writes historical fiction has to decide how much language of the period to use, and when to use current grammar and sentence composition so that the modern reader can follow it. But this is something that jumps out at me at the beginning, in the middle, and even at the end. I tell myself to forget about it and I immerse myself in the story once more, but then there it is again. No other reviewers seem to have noted this, but a part of me thinks that the braver course would have been for Coates to write this story under a pseudonym, because I suspect that without the famous name attached to it, more genuine criticism about this single, pervasive glitch would have been forthcoming.

Be that as it may, this is one hell of a fine story, and it’s told just when readers need to see it most. I recommend it to you without reservation.

Our Man in Charleston, by Christopher Dickey *****

OurmanincharlestonThis is the most fascinating book I’ve read in a long time! Equal parts biography and American Civil War nonfiction, it details the experiences of Britain’s foremost spy, Robert Bunch, who was living in Charleston, South Carolina when the Civil War began and for its duration. I am truly grateful to Crown Publishers and Net Galley for permitting me to read the DRC in advance. And perhaps it is just as well, in a way, that my kindle fell in the potty when I was done and with it went hundreds (genuinely) of notations that I made as I wended my way through it; I had procrastinated writing this review because there was so much I wanted to say. Too much, in fact! Sometimes I have to remind myself I am writing a review for would-be readers who might want to discover a few things on their own. Part of my writing mind is still wired in the direction of academic analysis, which is too ponderous for most readers to slog through, and not really necessary for our purposes.

I was riveted almost from the get-go. At first I had the bizarre notion that a British view of the Southern Rebellion would be objective. If I’d thought harder, I would have realized that isn’t true; Britain had a tremendous amount of interest in the outcome of this fight. But its interest was completely different from either the Union’s or that of the Confederacy. There were a couple of horrifying instances in which it might have chosen to recognize the Confederacy, but those moments quickly passed.

Even before war broke out, tension had been quietly mounting over the treatment of British seamen that landed in Charleston. On one occasion a single Black sailor had instigated a relatively small uprising on a plantation, and this act—the most fearful nightmare of the Southern ruling class, self-styled aristocrats who lived as a tiny minority among an enormous number of Black laborers who had every reason to hate them—gave birth to the Negro Seaman Act. The law stipulated that any Black sailors from another country that worked on board a ship that docked in Charleston, must be kept in jail until it was time to leave again. This was the stuff of which international incidents were born. Britain would attempt to solve the problem through Washington, D.C., only to find that Charleston had already begun to flout Federal law and that the nation’s promises were not kept. Eventually, a quiet negotiation began with Charleston authorities. When they continued to behave badly, Britain had little recourse, since it did not want it known in Washington that they had been dealing with the government of South Carolina as if it were sovereign. This probably also fed the delusions of Southern grandeur and may have encouraged them to believe they did not need the national government at all.

Robert Bunch was originally stationed in the north, but found himself in Charleston more and more often. His habit, as Britain’s agent, had been to head north during the unbearably humid, tropical summers of the deep South, but as events polarized the nation and northerners were no longer welcome, his own position became more and more tenuous. His job was to send reports to Britain, but whenever he went in public, as he had to do a great deal in order to pick up information, he was questioned increasingly closely about Britain’s view of the Confederacy. Which side would Britain take? Was he a spy? (Gracious, no!) Maybe, were he on the side of the Union, he should be locked up! (Please, please no!) He would have preferred, at one point, to go north and stay there, but his orders were to stay put, so that’s what he did.

In order to maintain his role and save his own neck, his behavior became increasingly misleading. The dispatches he sent to England were so adamantly opposed to recognition of the Confederacy that he was reproached a time or two for trying to make policy when his job was simply to provide information. However, when he was asked by local folk whether surely, Britain would soon recognize the Confederacy, and wouldn’t he encourage this, he gave misleading smiles, made ambiguous remarks, and agreed that of course he would be happy to slip the British nanny’s letter home in his diplomatic pouch so that it could reach the U.S. mail from which they were otherwise cut off.

He became so convincing in his subterfuge that at one point, he was nearly brought up on charges of treason against Britain. U.S. Secretary of State Seward, a difficult, punctilious man, had a number of bones to pick with Britain, and at one point tried to foment war with them, convinced that if it broke out, the South would drop their ridiculous posturing and rush to defend the red, white and blue. Lincoln felt differently, however, and made it clear to Seward and to Britain that he was only interested in fighting one war at a time. To save face, Seward latched onto Bunch’s dismissal as the single demand he would press. Surely, in order to avoid international tension, Britain wouldn’t mind hanging one of their lowly agents out to dry? Send the boy home and there’s an end to it. Get him gone.

Lord Palmerston, a man with power disproportionate to most in his position, had eclectic tendencies, and was having no part of firing Bunch. He liked the guy, and wasn’t really interested in being shoved around by the former colonies of Britain. If the US of A had to have its capitol torched a second time to get the point as to whose navy was better? Fine. Hopefully not, but Bunch was staying. And that is how it was.

There are two things that popped out at me in reading this compelling work. My vantage point, for those who haven’t read my reviews before, is that of a former history teacher. It was my job to teach teenagers about the American Civil War, or as much as teens can learn in ten weeks at one hour a go. It was by far my favorite quarter of the school year, but I was so overwhelmed with work and meetings that I didn’t have a lot of time to read in my field. I could use my six weeks off in the summer to read whatever I chose, if I wanted to, and that was about it. So although I could have used this information back then, it is nevertheless satisfying to have one nagging question answered, however belatedly.

My question, and my students’ question sometimes, was if Europe was able to rid itself of slavery by the government’s buying slaves from slave owners, why didn’t that work in the USA? And the only response I had—one provided by reading James McPherson and a Marxist historian named George Novack—was that they refused. They just wouldn’t do it.

But why? Surely it was obvious they were living in a feudal economy that the rest of the industrializing nations had abandoned. Surely they had to know they could not freeze history. Why cling to it beyond all reason?

Questions related to war are always rooted in economics, and so to simply say they were irrational, which is more or less my answer apart from I-don’t-know, felt incomplete. A number of other historians gave that reason, but it felt like a puzzle piece forced into the wrong hole. And Dickey provided me with the missing piece. Although I had read vague things about speculation in slaves and that uniquely American, horrific practice, slave breeding, which brought us international shame before all was said and done, I didn’t recognize the link between speculation and the tiny handful of wealthy plantation owners that made the choice to go to war rather than let it go.

Those that have followed the financial news in the USA and many other nations over the past decade are aware that a lot of home owners are losing their houses when they can’t pay mortgages, especially balloon mortgages, and more dreadful still is the fact that they are “under water”, meaning that after the bank takes the house back, or it is sold, they will still owe payments on it. They’ve borrowed more against it than it is worth, and only bankruptcy will solve their problem. When they lose that house, they lose everything.

And so it was with a large number of plantation owners. They had borrowed against their slaves. That was where their equity was: in human capital. If they allowed the government to buy their slaves at their current market value, they would become bankrupt, and having gained their social standing on nothing more than wealth and pale pigmentation, they would be ruined socially and financially. As long as there was any other choice, they would take it. They would send their own sons to die for it, though generally they chose to pay someone else to go in their own places.

They were underwater.

Britain’s perspective at the outset was that if one side had slaves and the other did not, then of course they would not recognize the upstart nation. When the border states were permitted to keep their slaves, it was still considered wiser to back the winning horse in any race, and so unless it appeared the Confederacy was about to win the war and gain international status as an independent nation anyway, there was nothing to be gained by antagonizing Lincoln’s administration.

I had wondered, in past years, whether Britain might not have yearned for the South to become independent. If one looks at a map of the USA as it was then, and the size of British possession of Canada, if it also dominated the Southern USA economically, and if it had a navy in the Atlantic that could pound the coastline, could it not overturn the American revolution? That slice of the Union is small compared to Canada, when the Confederate states are added in like the bottom bun of a hamburger. How delicious!

Not so, says Dickey. Britain had other fish to fry. It had been absorbed in fighting the Crimean War, and at the time, events in Europe were considered vastly more important than our own emerging outpost. It might be nice to have, but they didn’t need it badly enough to weigh in with the slaveocracy. The South had been so smugly sure that Britain needed their cotton for its mills, but in fact, they had planned well against such an eventuality, and had over a year’s worth of cotton socked away in storage. To the impertinent Southern men and women that sashayed up to their representatives to announce that Britain would simply have to recognize them, the response was generally somewhat courteous, muted, non-committal. If pressed, they suggested that cotton could indeed be grown in India. No worries.

And here I am three pages later according to Microsoft, and I have really only skimmed the surface. Think if I’d had my notes available! Believe me when I say I have just scratched the surface. I had so many delicious quotes, and now you’ll have to go ferret them out for yourself!

This magnificent book comes out July 21, 2015. For once I can tell you that whether or not you are conversant with the finer details of the American Civil War, you will be able to read this with no trouble. A knowledge of the broad contours of the war will make it more satisfying, but not strictly necessary. Those who enjoy history in general, or biographies in general, will likewise find it a must-read.

You have to get this book!