This novel, written by screenwriter David Fuller, tells the story of Cassius Howard, the carpenter slave owned by Hoke Howard, a Virginia tobacco farmer. A series of tragic events transformed Cassius from his place Hoke’s favorite and it cost him dearly. The only bright light in the entire situation was the time that Cassius was allowed to recuperate with Emoline Justice, a free black woman. Although Cassius learns a lot from Emoline, her example does not stop him from hardening himself to life and others when he returns back to the plantation. As time goes on, however, he becomes less able to avoid stepping in and helping others when he senses trouble. He even finds himself opening his heart to another slave. When he learns that Emoline was viciously murdered and that there were no plans for the local officials to even investigate it, he cannot and no longer wants to simply sit back and allow this injustice to continue. He vows to find her killer and bring that person to justice no matter what it cost him.
This is a novel that took me by surprise. I can’t say that it started out slow, because that would do it a disservice. What is true is that the first 100 pages built toward something that took me and held my imagination captive until the end. As a reader, I felt that I understood fully what it meant to be a slave. I felt I understood why Cassius had no hope for freedom in his life. Yet, as this same reader, I held out hope for him. In that way, Cassius was much more prepared for what he faced than I was. Much more prepared. When Cassius is forced to watch a female slave be sold in town, I could barely breathe. It was not an unfamiliar scene, but the added details shook me inside. Despite his distaste, Cassius swallowed him emotions as he was expected. In fact, Hoke appeared more tore up about what happened.
Fuller brings the world of slavery to light in a fresh and unique way. The most notable and thought provoking way that Sweetsmoke conveys the dehumanization of slaves was stylistic. When a free person spoke, be they black or white, rich or poor, their words were encased by quotation marks. Not so for the enslaved. When Cassius, Mam Rosie, Big Gus, and the others like them spoke, there were no quotation marks. This tripped me up fairly often at the beginning of the novel. I would read a paragraph and in my confusion realize that I was reading dialog, not prose. My reading quickly improved, but even at the end I stumbled from time to time. Still, I appreciated this choice on the part of the author. It brought home how insignificant slaves were to their owners. The fact that they might have hopes and dreams was wholly ignored and brushed aside. This was something they embodied every day. They didn’t have a last name of their own, so why would they think that their words should be heard or set apart? The lack of quotation marks makes perfect sense.
Sweetsmoke is a compelling and relevant historical novel about the lives of slaves and plantation owners. In Fuller’s world there are good and bad people on both sides of the front door of the big house. No one is idolized or demonized. Like reality, characters simply are who they are. They are not stereotyped. If you want to read challenging historical fiction, you should read this book.
To buy this novel, which will be released on August 26, click here.