Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

Set during the American Civil War, Sweetsmoke follows the life of Cassius, a slave on a tobacco plantation owned by Hoke Howard. The book is part historical fiction about the lives of slaves and part mystery in which Cassius plays detective to solve a murder of his friend, Emoline Justice. She not only nursed Cassius back to health, but she also taught him to read. Cassius is also different from the other slaves in that he has a special relationship with Hoke. This gives him a little more freedom to investigate Emoline's death.

In his first novel, Fuller presents a wonderfully written and thoroughly researched account of life on a tobacco plantation. We get to see the brutal treatment of the slaves and the deplorable living conditions in which the slaves live. We also get to see the relationships that are formed between the slaves, supervisors and owners. Two relationships were particularly interesting: the one between Hoke and Cassius because it's unlike the other slaves and gives Cassius more freedoms; the other between Cassius and Quashee because through all of the indignities, pain and suffering, their relationship was on the verge of blossoming and their spirits were not broken.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and especially liked the ending. However, I thought that the mystery part of the novel was a little weak in places and I would have liked to see it make a stronger presence and filled out a little more. However, Cassius's detective skills pick up considerably towards the end of the book, which added to my enjoyment of the conclusion. Because Cassius keeps his reading abilities secret, it allows him a certain advantage many times throughout the book especially when trying to solve the murder. His literacy and his freedoms made the detective angle to the story possible and plausible. It's a fascinating way to present historical material. In this ARC copy, the publishers included an interview with the author in which he explains more about how and why he wrote the book this way. It's well worth the read.

I thought the author made an interesting choice not to use quotes or proper punctuation around the words that the slaves spoke in the novel. It could have made it hard to read, but it didn't. It certainly set apart their words from the others. I could guess at why he did this, but I'd really like to hear the author's explanation for doing so.

David Fuller is a screenwriter with an interest in African American history.

I hope Fuller writes another book. I'd read it. Recommended.

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