A debut historical novel chronicles the struggle of a slave to win his freedom in the antebellum South.
Maule’s book focuses on a real-life hero, Robert Smalls. Smalls was born in South Carolina in 1839, the result of his mother—a slave—being raped by her master, Henry McKee. McKee’s wife discovered the truth about Smalls’ parentage and ensured his treatment was superior to other slaves’ and that he received additional training. But he was denied a real education, including literacy, and Smalls chafed at his double status, privileged but still imprisoned. Due to chronic displays of defiance, he was sent away to work at the Baines Hotel in Charleston, a move that promised greater opportunity but potential danger, too. Smalls, always infatuated with water, eventually found work at the Atlantic Wharf and landed a job on the Lone Kestrel, where he achieved his dream of becoming a full sailor. He also met Hannah Jones, the woman who became his wife after he brokered a deal with her owner to gradually purchase her freedom. But the dark storms of war gathered, and Smalls decided it was necessary—however perilous—to escape. He orchestrated a daring plan that involved the theft of the boat on which he had been working, the CSS Planter—at the time in the employ of the Confederate cause. Smalls became the captain, the first African-American to achieve such status in the U.S. Navy, and distinguished himself for his valor during the Civil War. He later became a successful businessman and purchased the mansion he once served in as a slave. Maule skillfully renders Smalls’ life through fictional embellishment, powerfully portraying his indomitable longing for liberty. The narrative covers Smalls’ life up until his final escape, and the remainder, including his time as a congressman, is quickly cataloged in a bullet-point epilogue. If Maule’s account of Smalls’ early years had been more concise, the author could have devoted more time to the full fruition of the protagonist’s labors and risks. Nonetheless, this is a riveting story and a sadly neglected sliver of American history.
A seamless weave of historical investigation and fictional drama starring an African-American hero.