In Miller’s debut historical novel set in the years before the Civil War, a Southern family learns to navigate the shifting boundaries of race, love and history.
Austin Miller is a well-to-do slaveholder with thousands of acres to his name and slaves in multiple states. Among them are Elizabeth and her daughter, Sophia, who stay with Austin as he changes residences to keep up with his various pursuits, including politics and a law practice. Household politics takes precedence over national politics, however; although Austin treats his slaves well, he’s marked by biases and paradoxes, as he wonders about slavery’s morality. (The moral questions become more pressing when it’s revealed that Sophia has become pregnant by her owner.) Austin decides, despite his personal convictions, to fight for the South in the Civil War. His wife and slaves remain home at Magnolia Manor, where they later encounter Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman; the latter seeks to take over the manor for war housing. What makes this fictionalized account of a 19th-century American family unusual and noteworthy is that it represents the author’s attempt to come to grips with his heritage. In a fascinating personal note, author Miller explains that he’s the great-grandchild of the real-life Austin Miller and Sophia, making this novel a thorough imagining of his family’s past. Despite this, however, the novel’s prose and characters alike suffer from a lack of energy and a certain flatness. The minimal dialogue produces a distant, secondhand effect that suppresses several moments that might have otherwise been more vivid. The stylistic uniformity and plethora of details are reminiscent of an oral history, and although this may be the intended effect, some readers may find it disorienting in a novel.
An ambitious, if plain, tale of the fraught relationships of a Civil War–era family.