Friday, August 24, 2018

The Uncomfortable Past

As I mentioned in a previous post, “The Fog of War,” there seems to be a zeitgeist in historical fiction that causes books addressing particular topics to arrive in waves. This is curious in a sense, because the length of roads to publication varies widely between commercial publishing and the world of indie presses and self-published authors. So even if anniversaries lead to media coverage of, say, World War I or the US Civil War that then sparks ideas in the minds of historical novelists, why do the books appear at more or less the same time, regardless of how they’re published?

I don’t know the answer, but I do see the phenomenon. For example, since the spring of 2018 no less than three books about the Underground Railroad have come to my attention. The first, Jacqueline Friedland’s Trouble the Water, is the subject of my most recent interview. The second, Terry Gamble’s The Eulogist, is destined for an interview next January, when it appears. I had to turn down the third, Martha Conway’s The Underground River, even though I loved Conway’s Sugarland, because there are only so many slots in the schedule and I like to cover as many times and places as possible over the course of a year. (For my previous interview with Conway, see 

Perhaps it’s the centennial of the Civil War that has turned people’s thoughts to the antebellum South and the dreadful inequality that kept those plantations running and their owners sufficiently satisfied that they were prepared to secede rather than accept the need for change. Perhaps it’s the current conversation about the lingering reality of racism and the removal of statues commemorating those who fought to preserve slavery that has writers wondering about those who opposed it, what drove them and what happened to them as a result of bucking the trend.

Trouble the Water doesn’t answer the question of the zeitgeist. As you’ll hear in the interview, Friedland decided to focus on abolitionism and the antebellum South because it interested her enough to keep her wanting to write about the topic for years—which for a novel is also a serious reason for choosing one topic over another. In doing so, she has given us a story that explores with sensitivity and depth the conflicting positions on slavery in 1840s Charleston: the views of slave owners and abolitionists, visitors and long-time residents, and, most important, in the person of Clover, the slaves themselves.

So listen to the interview, where we discuss, among other things, the difficulty for an author of portraying characters whose views she finds distasteful. Because whether the past makes us comfortable or not, we can’t avoid it—it’s already happened—and we do the present no service by sugarcoating the misdeeds and mistaken views of our predecessors. One day, no doubt, our descendants will wonder about us. “What were they thinking?” they’ll say. “How could they act that way?” And you know what? They’ll probably be right.

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.

Douglas Elling has left his home town in England and made a name for himself in Charleston. It’s about twenty years before the US Civil War, and slavery is still very much an institution in South Carolina, but Douglas finds it abhorrent. He has promised his father-in-law to care for the family business, so he can’t simply pack up and go home. Instead he becomes involved in the nascent abolition movement, using his inherited fleet and his manumitted laborers to intercept illegal slave traders on the high seas.

But when his estate goes up in flames, killing his wife and young daughter, Douglas is shattered. Can any good he might do by fighting the entrenched slave culture of the US South justify the death of his loved ones? He retreats into his shell until, three years later, the arrival of Abigail Milton, another English refugee, summons him back to society.

Abigail, aged seventeen, has a difficult past of her own. Her family has fallen from a comfortable middle-class existence to a life of poverty, and the wealthy uncle who helps them keep food on the table expects a price in return: Abby’s virtue. She doesn’t dare share the truth of her uncle’s advances: he’s promised to cut off all support if she tells. But the invitation to live as Douglas’s ward offers a perfect solution, even after she arrives in Charleston and realizes that not all is as it seems. Especially where Douglas is concerned …

In Trouble the Water (Spark Press, 2018), Jacqueline Friedland explores the complex society of the antebellum South, the influence and consequences of slavery, and the contributions of those who strove to help its victims escape through the Underground Railroad and ultimately to end the system altogether.

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