A debut historical novel re-examines the Fort Mims Massacre.
In 1813, 14-year-old Prudence is the youngest daughter of Samuel and Hannah Mims. They own a plantation in the Tensaw delta, near Mobile, Alabama, which—not yet a state—is in Mississippi territory. One day, Prudence and two of her brothers, David and Alex, await a ferry that will take the family to Fort Stoddert to visit their sister Henrietta, who is married to Maj. Benjamin Smoot. When they arrive, the fort is sweltering, and Hannah determines that it is no place for her pregnant daughter to deliver her third child. She convinces Smoot, a martinet who’s aloof to his wife’s needs, to let Henrietta travel to the more comfortable Mobile area for the baby’s arrival. Weeks later, when Henrietta and her family near the plantation for a much anticipated reprieve from traveling, they discover that Maj. Daniel Beasley has set up the Mississippi militia on the Mims property. Beasley hopes to confront Creek Red Stick warriors, who have raided and burned farms and supposedly want to start a slave revolt. Samuel finds the idea preposterous, knowing after years of amicable relations with the Creek tribe that the greedy, land-grabbing United States government is responsible for any violence. Now the Mims family must suffer food shortages, spoiled water, and drunken military commanders who may or may not be able to protect them from a Creek assault.
Parten, descended from Prudence, uses her family history to craft this tense saga and bring “a little humanity back to the legend” of the Fort Mims Massacre. Readers are correct to assume that a novel set on a plantation about vengeful Native Americans is going to prove a difficult emotional journey, especially for the teenage narrator. The first African-American readers meet is Jacob Miller, a ferry operator and freed man who is friends with Samuel. But the first use of the word “slave” is followed by the disquieting line “I always hoped that our way of life would last forever.” Thankfully, as Prudence’s interior life is explored—as a girl who is often an afterthought and nuisance to her brothers—her naïveté regarding the family’s financial situation melts away. She learns that “Papa made an effort to buy whole families who were born in this country.” Nevertheless, the notion of “good slaveholders” always “seemed like an oxymoron.” History buffs should love Parten’s transporting depiction of the era, which evokes the Mississippi Delta as a place populated by those who didn’t necessarily want to join the United States. Despite the narrative’s march toward brutality—which is only described in the Afterword—tenderness is the author’s tone of choice (“All the grace and beauty my mother imported to this place had vanished because of forces that were beyond anyone’s control”). And like any successful historical novel, the work will impart readers with a craving to learn more about the events.
An American tragedy treated coarsely in history books receives an invigorating new account.