First, I apologize to my friends for the lack of reviews I’ve posted recently! I’ve been putting in 60-hour weeks at work, and, unfortunately, review-writing is something that falls behind when I simply don’t have the time.
However, there have been some great books that have motivated this return to the saddle! The first is Gwen Bristow’s The Handsome Road. This is the second book in her Plantation Trilogy (the first, Deep Summer has fabulous reviews, though I’ve not read it yet), and when I found a little-worn copy of The Handsome Road in a thrift store for 50 cents, I simply couldn’t pass it up. Which is fortunate because, as it turns out, the books also work quite nicely independently of one another.
With The Handsome Road, we once again have a novel that fulfills my rigorous criteria for outstanding historical fiction. It opens strong, with a brief but spot-on foreword from the author:
On the 14th of March, 1794, Eli Whitney patented his cotton-gin. It was one of the greatest disasters that ever fell on the United States.
Bristol goes on to explain that slavery had been on its way out, as cotton took ages to process prior to the cotton gin. With its invention, however, a new kind of processing efficiency became possible, and the more slaves picking cotton, the better. Without the cotton gin (or some similar invention), slavery likely would have phased out on its own, and the American Civil War never would have happened. Rather a different viewpoint than our textbooks in school provided, right?
Bristow’s main goal in The Handsome Road is actually to enlighten the reader with knowledge of a different social class: poor white trash. As the plantation song in the story goes,
Nigger pick de cotton, nigger tote de load; Nigger build de levee for de ribber to smash; Nigger webber walk up de handsome road; But I radder be a nigger dan po’ white trash!”
One of the story’s female leads is Carrie May Upjohn, one such “po’ white trash” young woman. Carrie May starts off the story with a steady beau courting her, so we think we know where things will go, plot-wise. But then Carrie May’s brothers are recruited to work a job in the swamps, and things quickly change course.
Something else I learned: that it was cheaper to hire a poor white laborer for dangerous jobs (such as working in swamps, where deadly fevers were easily caught), paying him for his work, than it was to use a slave. A slave in his prime was worth $1,000 at market; a poor white laborer was only worth his wages, or a “generous” $50 compensation to the family, should he succumb to swamp fever.
Carrie May’s brothers are tragically lost in this way. From the meager compensation her family receives, Carrie May must find a way to care for herself, her mother, and her slightly deranged, lay-preaching father.
When the money runs out (as it quickly does), Carrie May—who has more than a little gumption—decides to go see the man who gave that $100 for her brothers’ lives. This is where her life truly begins to intersect with that of Ann Sheramy.
Ann’s world is as different as could be from Carrie May’s. Ann is the daughter of one of the wealthiest plantation owners on this stretch of the Mississippi, and she’s about to marry her long-time beau, the owner of another wealthy plantation in the neighborhood. Ann isn’t quite as bad as the Scarlett O’Hara stereotype, but she’s still plenty spoiled, self-centered, and oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the world outside her bubble of security.
With the arrival of war, the departure of their men, and the events that follow thereafter, Ann and Carrie May’s worlds both change radically, and their lives continue to intersect. Fair warning, though: this is not some cozy story of a quaint little friendship. The two women are briefly fascinated by one another, but quickly this turns to a lack of understanding and, eventually, a powerful antagonism.
My greatest takeaway from The Handsome Road was the perspective of the “poor white trash” characters, especially Carrie May. When everyone else is getting riled up to fight the Yankees, Carrie May learns a truth that shocks her so much, she can’t keep it to herself:
‘You know what this war’s about?’ she demanded. ‘I reckon you don’t because ain’t nobody told you. The Yankees want to come down here and turn the niggers loose. And suppose they do? Why should you care? You all ain’t got no niggers. Let them that’s got niggers fight to keep them!’
Prior to reading The Handsome Road, I’d never made this connection: that slave-owners were easily exempted from conscription, but people like Carrie May’s friends were held to the law. Moreover, without slave labor driving down labor costs, people like Carrie May could make better wages and have more job opportunities.
In the end, The Handsome Road is a historical novel that is definitely worth reading. It’s books like these that make me wonder, again and again: why can’t they explain history this well in school? Historical novels might be an embellished version of history, but, when done well, they’ll be with you for a long, long time.