Bestselling author of Cane River (2001) brings another 19th-century family story, this one focused on the Colfax Massacre, the bloodiest battle of the Reconstruction era.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the November 1872 elections are the first time the freed slaves living in the Bottom, an African-American settlement near Colfax, La., are able to assert their citizenship. But the election is inconclusive, and when the white Democratic ticket tries to unlawfully take office, the largely Republican black population occupies the town courthouse, waiting for support from the federal government. For Israel Smith and Sam Tademy, the choice is difficult—each has a wife and children in the Bottom to think about, and every day they spend in the courthouse is a harder one for their families. But as whites begin to learn about the occupation, the Bottom also becomes increasingly unsafe. Fighting begins in earnest in April, when a white army enters Colfax and brutally murders nearly every black man there. Sam is given the task of leading the women and children out of Colfax and is thus spared, and on his way back to town finds Israel, wounded but still alive. Nearly a decade after the riots, the author continues the story of the two families and their depleted community from the perspective of the next generation—particularly Israel’s son Noby and Sam’s son Jackson (Green, who shared his father’s dream of building a school for black children, is killed in a hunting accident). The families further intertwine when members of the third generation marry, and each tries to figure out how to—and if they even should—maintain the legacy of Colfax. The first half of the book sheds light on an overlooked event, and is rife with palpable tension, but the author tries to cram far too much history and family drama into the second half.
What starts as a page-turner becomes an overblown saga.