Bell follows up his Haitian trilogy (The Stone that the Builder Refused, 2004, etc.) with a novel of the Confederacy.
Born in poverty, Nathan Bedford Forrest created his own fortune, earned a reputation for inborn military genius and rose to national fame. A self-made man from a hardscrabble background, Forrest was a particularly American figure, and monuments bearing his stony image still dot the American landscape. But he was also a slave trader, a Confederate general and a founding leader of the Ku Klux Klan—at first glance a most unlikely subject for Bell, best known for chronicling a slave-led revolution in three critically praised novels. But it turns out the author is eminently suited for producing an informed, nuanced and not unsympathetic portrait of a man mostly remembered today as a patron saint of white supremacists. Bell puts Forrest in context, re-creating a society in which the enslavement of blacks by whites is traditional and uncontroversial, an unquestioned part of the natural order. Echoing his past work, the author creates a counterpoint to his protagonist in Henri, a Haitian who travels to the United States to stir a slave rebellion but ends up fighting alongside Forrest. Henri brings a Creole perspective and a distinctly African spirituality to the narrative. Bell imagines Forrest’s interactions with Henri and the other black men who follow him, including one who is his son, as well as his relationships with household slaves and the black woman who becomes his longtime mistress. In doing so, he reveals the complexity and range of interracial interaction possible in the Old South. Some will argue that Forrest hardly deserves humanizing, and that argument has merit. But Bell has chosen to exercise one of the novelist’s greatest gifts: He makes an alien world real and, in so doing, reminds us that slavery was not a spontaneous, supernatural evil, but the product of a particular cultural environment.
Brave, accomplished and utterly compelling, seamed with passages of haunting, lyrical beauty.