Robert Fleming

Charles Frazier uses reverse psychology to great advantage in his debut novel, Cold Mountain, a Civil War saga with blood on its bayonets and romance in its gentle soul. The author takes some creative risks by reshaping the true battle tales of his great-great-grandfather into an epic story that accumulates power and purpose with each turn of the page.

Our hero, Inman, much like the sensitive lead character in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, is sickened by the wanton waste of young lives on the battlefield and torn between the traditional conflict of valor and cowardice. In the field hospital, the injured Confederate private witnesses the brutality of both sides in the most bloody of American armed struggles, the War Between the States. 

Emotionally shaken, Inman realizes that he will be returned to the front and possible death as soon as he is well. He watches men on both sides ordered to charge into lethal barrages of gunfire and cannon shot, only to fall after a few precious steps. The author makes some disturbing cultural and social commentary as Inman considers the war philosophy of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who felt armed conflict was "an instrument for clarifying God's obscure will," a view not shared by the youthful soldier who dons new clothes and decides to reclaim his old life regardless of the consequences.

So the eventful journey back to his sweetheart, Ada, begins. Frazier takes us into the life and mind of Ada, a young girl stunned by the sudden death of her consumptive father. Despite the man's standing in the community as a preacher, no one comes forward to help her until another fatherless young woman, Ruby, appears. Together they team up to put Ada's farm back into operation, trading and bartering for the goods and services they need. It is the emotional bond betwee these two sturdy souls and their startling evolution as characters which lift this novel above and beyond the usual offerings in historical fiction.

Lyrical and magnificent in its narrative power, this is one of the most promising literary debuts in some time. And we are truly glad that Charles Frazier remembered all those marvelous Civil War yarns his great-great-grandaddy passed along.

Charles Frazier uses reverse psychology to great advantage in his debut novel, Cold Mountain, a Civil War saga with blood on its bayonets and romance in its gentle soul. The author takes some creative risks by reshaping the true battle tales of his great-great-grandfather into an epic story that accumulates power and purpose with each […]

<B>A slave's quest for freedom</B> Overwhelming acclaim greeted David Anthony Durham's debut novel, <I>Gabriel's Story</I>, which inspired comparisons to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. How does his sophomore effort measure up? <B>Walk Through Darkness</B>, Durham's second novel, matches, even surpasses, his first on every level. A lover of history, Durham takes the prickly topic of American slavery and carefully dissects it through the eyes of two leading characters: William, a fugitive slave, and Morrison, his relentless, mysterious pursuer. Durham's book uses the plight of William, who flees bondage in Maryland, to show the human toll of slavery as he follows the trail of his pregnant wife, Dover. In this uncertain time before the onset of the Civil War, William pushes himself to the limits of his endurance to get to freedom and to his wife, swimming the hazardous waters of the Chesapeake, braving the wilds, keeping one step ahead of his trackers and their dogs. Durham, an expert at describing his scenes in cinematic detail, is careful not to employ a broad brush in depicting either his black or white characters during this grueling journey through violent territory. The realism of the intricately evoked scenes and the humanity of his characters lift the novel above other historical fiction.

When William's first try for freedom fails after he is betrayed by Oli, a former slave working as a decoy with the trackers, the fugitive is beaten, humiliated and led away in chains. But the harsh scenes of violence and cruelty are tempered with brief glimpses into the interior world of the slaves, who survive the barbarity of their existence by holding on to the few precious moments of joy they experience with family members and friends who have not been sold. It is that love that compels William on his perilous quest, with Morrison right on his heels.

Upon reaching the North and freedom, nothing is as he expected, neither freedom, the black life there nor his beloved Dover who has matured emotionally and spiritually. Complex, brilliantly written and deeply engaging, <B>Walk Through Darkness</B> shows a young novelist building on his formidable narrative gifts to produce a powerful work of historical fiction. <I>Robert Fleming is a writer in New York</I>.

<B>A slave's quest for freedom</B> Overwhelming acclaim greeted David Anthony Durham's debut novel, <I>Gabriel's Story</I>, which inspired comparisons to William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. How does his sophomore effort measure up? <B>Walk Through Darkness</B>, Durham's second novel, matches, even surpasses, his first on every level. A lover of history, Durham takes the prickly topic of […]

Like its author Vernon Jordan, the former civil rights leader turned capable businessman and lawyer, the memoir Vernon Can Read! is candid, worldly, controversial and distinctively smart. Co-written with Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the popular biography Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, the book examines the life of Jordan from his youth in an Atlanta housing project through his glory years as head of one of the most enduring civil rights organizations, the National Urban League.

In a surprising admission, Jordan dismisses the much-publicized accounts of his rags-to-riches life as a fabrication of the media, noting that he "was never in rags." A voracious reader, he attended DePauw University and Howard University's Law School. While Jordan's account of his salad days in college and his early years as a lawyer are poignant, the book really picks up steam during his recollections of historic civil rights campaigns, during which he served as a member of the legal team that desegregated the University of Georgia in 1961.

In bold terms, Jordan discusses the emotional and legal obstacles of life under Jim Crow, and the importance of church and spirituality in his survival as a black man. As an observer of the times, he does more than just drop names; his insights reveal much about key figures of the 1960s and '70s like Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Jesse Jackson and Presidents Johnson, Nixon and Carter. Jordan's account of the 1980 assassination attempt that left him close to death is gripping and dramatic. He ends the book in that decade with a promise to continue in a future volume.

For all of his achievements, there is a modesty about Jordan, who often seems astonished by the demands and quirks of public life. "One of the strangest parts of being in the public eye is that people who don't know you believe they know you," he writes. Vernon Can Read! may not answer all of the many questions the public has about President Clinton's "First Friend," but the book goes a long way toward illuminating his essence and character. This is a marvelous memoir by a man who knows what to tell and how to tell it.

Robert Fleming, author of The African American Writers Handbook, writes from New York City.

 

Like its author Vernon Jordan, the former civil rights leader turned capable businessman and lawyer, the memoir Vernon Can Read! is candid, worldly, controversial and distinctively smart. Co-written with Annette Gordon-Reed, author of the popular biography Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy, the book examines the life of Jordan from his youth in […]

While not intended as a sequel to his National Book Award-winning volume Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball's latest work, The Sweet Hell Inside, takes a look at many of the same themes: race, class, prejudice and sex. Beginning with the razor-sharp memories of 84-year-old Edwina Harleston Whitlock, Ball sets out to uncover the legacy of the Harlestons, an African-American clan whose blood ties he shares. Whitlock, a nonwhite descendant of the Balls, provided the author with documents that convinced him they were cousins as a result of the interracial coupling so common during the slavery and Reconstruction eras. The book opens with a detailed look at William Harleston, the owner of a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, that housed about 60 slaves, including Kate Wilson, who became the mother of his children. The pair maintained a forbidden sexual relationship for 35 years, causing Harleston to be shunned by friends and family alike.

From William and Kate, a prestigious bloodline began, one that would produce a family of African Americans unwilling to submit to the rigid demands of Jim Crow and segregation laws. The Harlestons endured their share of accomplishments as well as tragedies, but many members of the clan went on to succeed in business, civic affairs and the arts. Ball tells each of their triumphant stories with an exquisite sense of detail and insight.

Of the many tales told here, none are as fascinating as those of Harleston descendants Ella and Teddy. Ella, ravished by a prominent minister, later teamed with him to mold a small army of homeless black children into first-rate entertainers who took Broadway and Europe by storm. Her brother Teddy struggled to become an artist in Harlem, where he found himself surrounded by the high energy of the black creative world. Eventually, his efforts paid off, and he landed lucrative commissions, including a prize catch a request to paint noted industrialist Pierre DuPont.

These are just two of the many narratives Ball recounts with care and style in a wonderfully crafted volume that offers an in-depth look at black culture and history. In many respects, The Sweet Hell Inside is an even better book than Ball's first, and that is quite a feat in itself.

 

While not intended as a sequel to his National Book Award-winning volume Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball's latest work, The Sweet Hell Inside, takes a look at many of the same themes: race, class, prejudice and sex. Beginning with the razor-sharp memories of 84-year-old Edwina Harleston Whitlock, Ball sets out to uncover the legacy […]

So much has been written about the controversial African-American author Richard Wright, who penned Black Boy and Native Son. There are four biographies, including the adoring 1973 book by Frenchman Michel Fabre and the scathing, no-holds-barred 1988 work by black poet Margaret Walker. Of the books written on Wright to date, the new biography by Hazel Rowley is more informative, comprehensive and insightful than any of the earlier efforts. Scouring the 136 boxes of Wright's memorabilia at Yale University and hunting down letters written by the author to people around the world, Rowley has constructed a more complex, detailed view of Wright than previously seen. She explores his early impoverished beginnings in Mississippi, his time as a struggling writer in Chicago, his flirtation with the Communist Party, his critical and popular successes with his early novels and the later, more complicated works of his European years. His fascination with French philosophy and his harassment by the American government also receive fascinating treatment.

For Rowley, the artistic Wright and the political Wright are one. Always searching for a deeper understanding of himself and a truer writing voice, Wright hated compromise. Whether he was protesting the crushing discrimination of Jim Crow in his brilliant short story collections or speaking out against the global repercussions of colonialism in his later nonfiction books, his was a voice to be reckoned with.

It is to Rowley's credit that she pulls no punches in showing how Wright's work met with intense resistance from editors and publishers, who forced him to rewrite large sections of his narratives because of their frank content about racism. Her disclosures about Wright as a lover, social animal, father and husband are particularly revealing, especially those concerning his interracial marriage a bond that was both unlawful and taboo at the time.

In the closing chapters, Rowley chronicles the decline of Wright's skills and health as he worked even harder to analyze a world in total political and cultural flux. He was a man who never stopped writing, and many of his works remain unpublished. Overall, Rowley's is a definitive, well-written biography of a major author, an African American who helped change how this country discussed issues of race, sex and culture. This is a superb book from start to finish.

Robert Fleming is the author of The African American Writer's Handbook (Ballantine).

 

So much has been written about the controversial African-American author Richard Wright, who penned Black Boy and Native Son. There are four biographies, including the adoring 1973 book by Frenchman Michel Fabre and the scathing, no-holds-barred 1988 work by black poet Margaret Walker. Of the books written on Wright to date, the new biography by […]

he early work of novelist Jeff Shaara was inevitably compared to that of his father, Michael Shaara, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel The Killer Angels. With his first two novels, Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara completed the Civil War trilogy his father had begun. The younger Shaara went on to write a best-selling novel of the Mexican-American War (Gone for Soldiers) and in his latest work, he shifts his focus to the American Revolution.

Shaara says his new book is the first of a two-part saga exploring the full sweep of the conflict that gave birth to this republic and routed the British after a brief but bloody war. Again choosing to go inside the minds of the principal players, he selects four of the most powerful personalities of the era: John Adams, Ben Franklin, George Washington and General Thomas Gage, the commander-in-chief of British forces.

Opening with a brief biography on each of the essential characters, Shaara leads us through the fast-moving American uprising that first protested, then sought to overthrow English colonial rule. Shaara uses the characters of Adams, Gage and Franklin to create a behind-the-scenes feel for the maneuvers on both sides.

The book succeeds in its effort to show how a real revolution is mounted, with men and women of varying personalities struggling to form a new nation under the penalty of reprisal and death. In much historical fiction of this period, the life of British society among the American colonials is shortchanged, but not here. Shaara provides a fascinating glimpse of the British ruling class in all its stiff, autocratic complexity. Some of the book's finest scenes come when his supporting characters are allowed their time on the page, including such familiar names as Sam Adams, Lord Hillsborough, John Hancock, Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, Tom Paine and William Pitt.

Not content with a panoramic view, Shaara also explores how deeply the pressures of revolt cut into the social fabric of the day, splitting families and severing friendships.

Sweeping and turbulent, Rise to Rebellion rarely fails to satisfy the reader who appreciates historical fiction done with style, accuracy, sensitivity and analytical skill. If there were questions about whether Shaara would live up to his literary pedigree, this should be the book to finally silence the doubters.

 

he early work of novelist Jeff Shaara was inevitably compared to that of his father, Michael Shaara, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical novel The Killer Angels. With his first two novels, Gods and Generals and The Last Full Measure, Jeff Shaara completed the Civil War trilogy his father had begun. The younger Shaara went […]

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