Monday, February 22, 2010

A BOOK OF SORROW AND GRACE


More than the story, it is Robert Hicks’s compelling voice that places his novel, A SEPARATE PEACE, way above the slew of mediocre books published every other month. The protagonists in his novel are Confederate General John Bell Hood and his wife, New Orleans socialite Anna Marie Hennen, grifter turned writer Eli Griffin, and their bête noire, a killer named a Sebastien Lemerle. These characters mingle in the broad stage of 1873 New Orleans and its environs along with a giant, a gifted octoroon and a dwarf. Confederate General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard–aren’t southern names grand?– appears briefly to play a villainous part and painter Degas makes a cameo appearance. Its leitmotif , at times muted as a heartbeat and at other times as audible as a rebel yell, is the tragic history of race relations in the America.
This is a novel about love’s redemptive power. It deals with the final years of West Pointer General John Bell Hood whose career the United States Army began his career in the United States Army as a second lieutenant attached to the 4th. US Infantry, in California. Subsequently, he served with the 2nd. US Cavalry, in Texas, under the command of future Confederate generals Albert Johnston and Sydney Robert E. Lee. He commanded the reconnaissance patrol that set upon Comanche travelling under a white flag. In the ensuing battle, a Comanche warrior managed to inflict the first of several wounds Hood would sustain throughout his career–he shot an arrow that pinned Hood's left arm to his saddle. In his novel, Hicks revisits this event, dragging the reader through the killing fields of the genocidal war against Native Americans.
Years later, Hood recollects how “We shot, stabbed, and beat children and women…and mutilated them."
The bitter lessons he takes from the massacre is, “One killing leads to another. ” A man changes when he's killed someone. So much of what was possible for him in life becomes impossible: innocence, grace, forgiveness, sweetness. A killer is always a killer..." Yet, three days into the Civil war, he resigned his commission in the US Army and joined the Confederate Army as a cavalry captain. From then on, his life became a litany of bloody encounters. He lost the use of his left arm in the battle of Bull Run and went on to fight at Antietam, Gettysburg and Chickamauga, where he lost his left leg. Once the war was over and he could study war no more, he borrowed 10, 000 dollars from his Kentucky relatives and moved to New Orleans to start a career as a cotton broker. There he met and married socialite Anna Marie Hennen. Their romance is the brightest is the brightest strand in a skein Hicks deftly weaves into a fascinating tapestry.
Hicks’s Hood is a hero who would be ordinary. He is a tired soldier in a world that no longer needs his services. When he meets Anna Marie, he is on the brink of implosion. Loving her leads him back to place where he is whole. Anna Marie herself is a thorough enchantress. She blends the seductiveness of a southern magnolias gone rogue, the elegance of Anna Karenina, the maternal instincts of Dolly Oblonskaya, the sassy charm of a faithful Ema Bovary. Hicks has a Tolstoyan gift for breathing life into his female characters. It is a gift that makes Eli Griffin’s bonnie lass Margaret and Anna Marie Hennen impossible to forget. Margaret grows into an instrument of salvation–her own, then Eli’s. Anna Marie transitions from her youth when she is a “..beautiful woman educated in France by Frenchmen… {someone who can}) ride a horse like a country-ass Acadian, paint like man and pray like a saint” to the fully realized adulthood of a wife and mother with a mind of her own.
Life is not easy for any of Hicks’s characters, but it is Hood’s displacement among the fussy New Orleans Creoles that seals his fate and that of his family. One wonders about this six-foot two Kentucky galoot whose ancestors were a mix of Yankee-Dutch sailors and aristocrats from New Amsterdam. What made him think that he could ever fit into the tiny pigeonholes of Creole society? Formerly a hero, he has no place among the venal Confederate Generals of the Reconstruction, the morally bankrupt northern carpet baggers and White League supremacists. Black New Orleans is a world closed to him. Or not.
Northern Eli Griffin tells the reader all about Hoods and the denizens of the Big Easy. His voyage of self-discovery moves the narrative forward, grabs it back, sets it on its head and rights it again with a little help from Anna Marie’s journals and Hood’s autobiography. His is a lyrical voice that leads sings of a city and of a people “full of sorrow, full of grace.”
Sorrow and grace tether the Hoods, Eli, the giant Michel, to the charming, gifted and therefore doomed octoroon Paschal, the amoral dwarf Rentrah, and the killer Sebastien Lemerle to a world fraught with dark and perilous beauty. Everywhere love and death mingle. Everywhere disaster is a heartbeat away. Everywhere a person's race determines how he shall live and die There are exceptions, but the price they pay is high indeed. In Reconstruction Period New Orleans, predictable and unpredictable coalesce into a volatile mix. Those who survive the tender mercies of the White League have to contend with floods, damn Yankees and yellow fever. Hicks takes all this and fashions it into a tale to remember. So vibrantly crafted are his New Orleans and its people that they stand from his pages and follow you around as hauntingly as the scent of night blooming jasmine. His separate country may echo with the voices of Balzac, Tolstoy and Flannery Connor, but make no mistake about, this is very much his own domain.

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