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 Historical Fiction Review   

 

 

Birthright: A Novel of the Civil War
By Clay Blount
NewSouth Books, 2004
Hardcover, $27.95 (382 pages)
ISBN: 1588381455
 
 
 

English professors teach that the best novels show meticulous attention to language and have morally and psychologically complex characters and themes expressing deep reflection on the difficult problems of human existence.  Think Faulkner, Dickens, Flannery OíConnor. 

Judging by the fiction bestseller lists, most people ignore their English teachers, preferring novels with good pacing, tight plots, and simple characters who are either good or bad, novels which keep them diverted on plane flights or beach vacations.  Think Clancy, Grisham, Stephen King. 

By most peopleís standards, Clay Blountís Birthright is a fine novel.  As an English teacher, I admit to a certain amount of queasiness about the novel at first, especially in the early chapters, where character descriptions are clumsily handled; Blount has a tendency to tell rather than show.  Once past the first few pages, I found the novel riveting.  In fact, I had a hard time putting it down and spent several late nights under the reading lamp enjoying Clay Blountís fine storytelling.   

Birthright is set mostly in Vicksburg in the years shortly before and during the Civil War, though there are interesting side trips to New Orleans and New York.  The 1863 siege and occupation of Vicksburg serve as backdrop for the novelís climax, which involves the struggle for possession of the Carthage family fortune.  Blount mixes in a cast of colorful characters, including a hard-drinking newspaper editor, a prostitute, a hired assassin, and one of the most ornery, no-good villains in pop novel history.  There is a wealth of interesting and historically accurate detail. 

The novel has what is for this reviewer a suspiciously positive portrait of old south slavery.  Winston Carthage, the protagonist, avoids moral stain by freeing his slaves well before the Yankees arrive, sending them off to freedom clutching $25 gold pieces.  The faithful former slaves remaining behind receive large cash and land grants.  Iím no historian, but one suspects Winston Carthageís enlightened approach to slavery was necessarily rare among plantation owners.  Readers with a low tolerance for moonlight-and-magnolias southern romanticism are advised to steer clear, as are those who value moral ambiguity as a mark of realistic characterization.   

The book is pricey at almost $30, but has been exceedingly well-produced.  Hats off to Clay Blount and to the editors at NewSouth Press for meticulous proofreading (I found only one spelling error, though there are a few odd spacing problems scattered through the novel.)  The novel is printed on high quality paper and uses a good, readable font, which made reading a pleasure.  Birthright is, as Iíve suggested, probably not for the self-consciously literary reader, but for those who value a ripping good story with no loose ends, try Clay Blountís Birthright

 
Edwin McAllister
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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