In this offbeat Civil War novel, a young abolitionist comes to terms with his times as he visits his slave-owning grandparents.
Liberty Fish is born in 1844 in Delphi, N.Y. His parents, Thatcher and Roxana, are ardent abolitionists, spending weeks away from home on the lecture circuit. They also shelter fugitive slaves. Just shy of 17, Liberty volunteers to join the Union army. After several close calls, he deserts his regiment in Georgia, feeling a “divine necessity” to visit his ancestral home (Roxana has quarreled bitterly with her parents and is no longer welcome on the South Carolina plantation where she was raised). Once there, Liberty realizes revenge is futile, though both grandparents are still mighty vicious. Ida is bedridden and Asa, a racist crackpot, is conducting horrifying experiments on his slaves to turn them white. As the Union forces close in, Liberty reluctantly joins Asa in flight to Charleston, where they embark for the Bahamas. Failing to commandeer the vessel, Asa jumps overboard, while Liberty returns to his Delphi home. There are many oddities here. The Civil War section begins only at the halfway point. The leisurely first half, Liberty’s childhood, is crowded with colorful minor characters; their prattle obscures the narrative like fog. Wright flirts with various possibilities (coming-of-age and/or Civil War stories, dysfunctional family saga) but then backs away from them. Liberty makes a curious protagonist, the resolute volunteer and equally resolute deserter becoming largely passive once he reaches the plantation, and that is what is most disturbing. Reasonable expectations that Liberty will prove a cathartic force, cleansing the plantation of its rottenness, go unmet. The problem is also one of tone; Wright surely does not mean to portray Asa as a lovable old rascal, but he comes uncomfortably close.
A disappointing misstep by a versatile writer (Going Native, 1994, etc.).