One of Kevin Powers’ earliest memories is of a spooky, worn-out plantation house just outside of Richmond, Virginia.
“The house was something like a two-minute walk from my house and I spent a lot of time there. It was also in the cultural mythology of Chesterfield County,” Powers says. “There was a murder there. Then the story got filled in with mythology, ghost stories. Stuff like that sticks in your mind when you’re five or six years old.”
For decades, the memories of that old plantation, and the violence that surrounded it, have been bouncing around Powers’ head. For his second novel, Powers journeys into the past in an attempt to untangle the myths of his hometown and ultimately the tragedies underlying so much of American history.
The Yellow Birds (2012), Kevin Powers’ first novel, which was inspired by his experiences as a veteran of the second Iraq War, made a huge splash upon its debut. The winner of the GuardianFirst Book Award and the PEN/Hemingway Award, Powers is emerging as an honest, unblinking chronicler of the violence that surrounds us—whether in war zones or not.
Partly inspired by the history of the plantation, Powers’ new novel, A Shout in the Ruins, spans the time from just before the Civil War until more than 100 years later. The novel features dozens of characters in and around the fictional Levallois Plantation. Their lives entwine with the course of the Civil War, which leaves deep scars on the veterans, the families back home, the slaves, and the land itself.
The novel begins by exploring the mystery of Emily Reid Levallois’s disappearance and presumed death and then goes back to her birth and eventual marriage to Antony Levallois. On the Levallois plantation, a slave named Rawls plots to secure freedom for him and his lover, Nurse. In the second timeline, an African-American man named George Seldom travels back to the Richmond area in the 1950s. George is hoping to find the truth about his parentage, which was swallowed by the war.
In order to tell this story, Powers needed a lot of voices. “I knew this subject required a vastly different approach than my first novel, where you’re just inside the one character’s head,” Powers says. “I thought, ‘Who’s in this house and who’s around the house?’ ” The cast of characters then grew with where the story lead them.
Powers knows that telling such a complex story with so many points of view and shifting timelines could fall into the trap of romanticizing the antebellum era. In taking on this story, Powers confronts not only some of his earliest memories but also some of the American south’s most engrained myths about itself.
“As a writer you start thinking about what kind of stories we’re really telling ourselves,” he says. On the one hand, Powers has a deep affection for his hometown. But he also knows that “the place where I’m from, that really feels like home to me, is also a place where people have done acts that equal the worst savagery in human history.”
The characters themselves wrestle with the power of memory and the confusion of a world turned upside down by slavery and war. George Seldom’s search for his origins, in some sense, reflects Powers’ own journey to understand his hometown. “You’re too young to know it yet, and I don’t mean to patronize, but when you get to be my age you see how your life just started to fade away,” Seldom says in the novel. “Sometimes seems like you wake up with no history, no connection to anything. Almost like amnesia, except you don’t forget your name and all, just where you fit into a world that changes too fast to keep up with.”
Considering the content of his first two novels, Powers says something that might surprise his readers: “I feel like a fundamentally optimistic person.” His approach is to “throw all the bad that I can in front of me and see if there’s any light getting through,” he says. “I feel like the conclusion I’ve come to is, Yeah, there’s a little light, a little hope, a possibility. And I hope that’s enough because any is better than one. Maybe that’s a leap of faith; maybe that’s a test.”
Coming face-to-face with violence, confronting the myths of our culture, and truly examining the world we’ve made for ourselves—that is Kevin Powers’ challenge to the reader. And it’s a challenge much of America still needs to face. The real life plantation house that formed the kernel of this idea, the site of so much suffering and exploitation, is today the anchor of a strip mall. Residents of Richmond can eat an expensive steak surrounded by the ghosts Kevin Powers wants us to listen to.Richard Z. Santos is a writer and teacher living in Austin. He recently completed his first novel.