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  Historical Fiction Review    


Hell at the Breech
by Tom Franklin
William Morrow, 2003
Hardcover, $23.95 (318 pages)
ISBN: 0-688-16741-1




Based on the actual Mitcham War in Clarke County in southwest Alabama in the 1890s, Hell at the Breech spins a dramatic cycle far from the actual truth. Tom Franklin in his first novel, after a stunning debut with Poachers, a novella and collection of short fiction, several years ago, weaves his story around a young man named Mack Burke who is sent to work off his adopted Granny’s debt at a country store owned by an evil man whose cousin had been killed by a mysterious gunshot.

Although it is unknown by the men of Mitcham Beat, it was actually Mack Burke’s gun that killed Arch Bedsole. But Mack remains silent, too afraid to talk, knowing the violence that lays just beneath the surface of the men who live in this rural countryside, men like Arch’s cousin, Tooch Bedsole, who moves in and takes over Arch’s store, where he takes Mack to work off the debt.

Tom Franklin maneuvers his people through a hellish swamp, a dreadful land filled with varmints and ghosts, angry men who kill without a second thought, outlaws who drift here and there in a lawless manner. He peoples his shadowy world with one innocent boy who watches while Hell-at-the-Breech is being organized by Tooch, who stirs an atmosphere of revenge in the hearts of farmers who are afraid of the unknown. And the biggest unknown factor to them is the folks who live in the towns of Grove Hill and Coffeeville who are represented by Sheriff Billy Waite, who rides amongst them attempting to find the facts concerning the latest murder of a nearby farmer.

As he rides, Billy Waite can feel the tension. Tom Franklin, who seems consumed with an archaic twist of the language, invents colorful words to tighten the mysteries of his story. Not unlike a morality play or a Japanese melodrama wherein all characters die, “Hell at the Breech” is a universal story of good and evil.

Even when you stare at the cover, an ancient photograph of men gathered in front of an old country store, you know the heat and hell of a violent breed is playing in their hard-wrought faces.

When the boy, Mack Burke is sent out to dig the grave and bury the moonshiner, the reader feels the cold of the night, the ache of the boy’s conscience, the weight of the victim, and the lazy meanness of Tooch Bedsole and his drinking companion.

The author’s description of the cotton farmer is as eerie as it is touching: “Floyd was said to be able to pick nearly three-hundred pounds of cotton by himself, three-hundred pounds from when he stepped into the field at dawn to when he stepped out long after the sun had scalded the western sky and vanished. He went into a kind of trance, ignored his wife when she called for him to kill a copperhead or whip one of the straying boys. When she led the three of them from the field at blistering noon for dinner, Floyd alone remained, fingers picking and eyes dead, his bag round and rounder and leaving in its wake a smooth, deepening smear of dirt. Then his hunched shoulders would rise and he walked stiffly, stretching his back, to the wagon, pouring out the contents of his bag with no sense of pride or accomplishment, just flapping the bag empty and hopping down, rolling his head side to side, uncapping the water barrel and lowering his blank face in and drinking like a dog. Chewing a cold biscuit. Then, back where he would be when his family came hurrying out, the mother carrying the baby and chattering to the boys who cast slant-eyed looks at each other, plots taking root in their brains, dirt clods to be thrown, big caterpillars to be put down a shirt collar as the mother scolded them and implored Floyd to take a switch to one boy or the whole brood, but Floyd’s eyes registering nothing, his fingers reaching and picking.”

And you know in the depth of your knowledge as a reader that it is no wonder when the mother died in the field Floyd left her lying there, had the youngest of his sons to watch after the baby while he and the other youngsters kept on picking. That night, he picked her up, carried her home, and washed the dirt from her hands and arms and face. He dug a hole and buried her.

It’s a hard life that Franklin describes, and it makes the reader squirm, but it is rock-hard in its believable motivations, just as he writes about the sheriff’s frustrations when he knows he cannot stop the violence. “His coat hung by the door with the badge pinned inside it, and now, for the first time in his career as a sheriff, he could feel the metal as an organ gone bad, liver mossy or kidneys hardened, heart flattened out and its river of blood dammed off. He took another drink.”

Franklin’s words echo, like the sound of a revolver or an old single-shot rifle. The sound cannot be mistaken.

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

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