A bildungsroman follows a troubled boy’s upbringing in a politically charged antebellum South.
Alemeth Byers grows up on a Mississippi cotton plantation owned and operated by his father, Amzi. Years ago his mother died, and the young boy pines for the acceptance of his father, but he’s an unruly sort who repeatedly makes impulsive, bad decisions. (The book opens with Alemeth furtively absconding with his father’s rifle in search of a panther he spontaneously decided to kill.) Amzi marries Eliza Strong, the neighbor’s sister and a widower as well. As a deeply religious teacher, she insists on providing an education for Alemeth, especially one grounded in Scripture. Alemeth loathes all book learning, despite a powerful curiosity, and has no patience for religion. He’s sent to be educated at Mount Sylvan and stay with the Rev. Vrooman, a man as temperamental as he is erudite. Meanwhile, the issue of slavery becomes increasingly contentious, generating a rift between Amzi and Eliza. She insists on teaching African-Americans how to read and become Christians; Amzi worries that this will only court trouble, which it does. Alemeth becomes conflicted about slavery, unsure of its defensibility, an ambivalence fomented by a friendship with a young black boy. Alemeth almost randomly pursues a career in the newspaper industry—he wanted to impress a girl—and then decides to enlist in the Confederate cause, again largely motivated by the desire to curry favor with a woman. Carvin (A Piece of the Pie, 2005, etc.) masterfully brings to life a South in dramatic transition, and he avoids the binary categories of pro and con that often typify the genre. Eliza’s character, in particular, is well-drawn in subtle hues. She’s not quite an outright abolitionist, but her Christian compassion precludes an embrace of slavery. Frustratingly, the story fails to fully bloom into a coherent plot. It reads like a chronicle of successive events, leaving the reader to wonder what thematic thread binds it all. Nonetheless, this is a thoughtful, sensitive rendering of a complex period in American history.
A philosophically challenging look at the inner turmoil of the American South in the 19th century.