A debut novel of the Civil War, set on the Virginia tobacco plantation of Sweetsmoke during 1862.
The narrative focuses on Cassius, “of lean and hungry look,” and indeed named after the character in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Looked after by his master, Hoke Howard, Cassius is smart, shrewd and resentful. Besides Hoke, the dominant influence in his life has been Emoline Justice, an old black woman who during a traumatic time in Cassius’s life had taught him to read and write—and who at the beginning of the novel has been brutally murdered. One conceivable motive is the fact that in addition to her role as a fortuneteller and an herbalist, Emoline has been serving as a Federal spy, and it’s not clear who knows this secret part of her identity. While giving off the “sweetsmoke” flavor of life on a plantation, the novel also shares something with the whodunits of detective fiction, for Cassius is determined to find her murderer. One prime suspect is Solomon Whitacre, a weasly quartermaster in the Confederate Army. Another is Hoke, for his kindly exterior conceals a ruthless and pitiless interior. While Cassius is offered numerous opportunities to escape, his strong desire to avenge Emoline’s death keeps him close to home. Fuller gives us different perspectives on slavery and on the war—we learn about life on the plantation through the slaves themselves, through the privileged life of the owning families and through soldiers who fight not out of loyalty to the Confederacy but to escape dull marriages and the dreariness of domestic life. We also learn of inside maneuvering, of how slaves are pitted against each other to contend for relationships of relative power and prestige. Cassius is eventually caught up in the barbarity of Sharpsburg and finds a creative way to get his freedom—and to solve the mystery of Emoline’s murder.
While not always gripping, this novel from veteran screenwriter Fuller is well worth reading because of Cassius’s sinuous and guileful complexity.