Review by Christopher Bundrick
One of the first things that stands out about Casey Clabough’s Confederado is the fantastic job it does pacing action and generating narrative tension. The prologue is a terrific example of this. Beginning in media res, the book’s first line—
Every time the hell-bent little mare took a curve of the narrow, wagon-rutted road, Alvis Benjamin Stevens felt she was a splinter’s breadth from losing her footing and sending them both sliding and tumbling into the mud and puddles of brown water passing beneath.
—not only thrusts the reader directly into the excitement, but introduces the protagonist and the major theme (Stevens’s struggle to make a place for himself in the world) as well. Only a few lines later the writing becomes even more impressive. In the closing line of the first paragraph, Stevens turns to look for his pursuers; then the next paragraph opens with the line, “It was a graceful maneuver, man and horse turning as one, the man as much the animal as the horse the man.” A chiasmus worthy of Faulkner, this sentence demonstrates serious literary power.
At the same time, unfortunately, it also hints at the book’s larger problem: generating real, three-dimensional characters that readers can distinguish from the stock representations we might expect from the less sophisticated, nineteenth-century romances after which Confederado seems to be modeled.
Following Alvis Benjamin Stevens from his dismal last days as a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War to his triumph in Brazil, Clabough’s work takes a look at an aspect of southern history that, until recently, has received scant attention. Interest in the ten thousand or so southerners who moved to Brazil rather than live under the constraints of Reconstruction, however, has risen jointly with interest in what critics call the Global South, an approach to southern literature that tries to develop a broader sense of what regional difference might mean in the U.S.and beyond. Like most of the historical romances from the nineteenth century, Conferderado seems overtly didactic in a way that, regrettably, makes its characters seem rather flat. Having preceded the realism (psychological, social, or otherwise) that became the norm in American literature around the turn of the twentieth century, the romance plot substitutes the rich inner lives of characters for specific plot arcs that reinforce or otherwise sustain specific cultural ideals. This is not, in itself, a problem, but as a twenty-first century version of the romance, Confederado seems to advocate some ideals that might seem problematic to modern readers.
After Alvis Stevens returns from the war (having, like Aeneas, carried his father home), he is nursed back to health by Aunt Marcella, the loyal black mammy. Marcella, the narrator tells us, cared for the exhausted Alvis “as a speckled hen clucks about its lone chick, ready to cover it with a warm protective wing.” While he’s in his sickbed, she entertains Stevens—as she did in his youth—by telling him “fanciful stories that were her very own.” What follows is a credible retelling of a West African tale about Anansi—the trickster spider—who attempts to steal all of the world’s wisdom for himself. “‘Anansi the spider had harvested all the wisdom in the world and kept it stored up in a huge pot,’” she begins. “‘Niyame, the god of the sky, had given it to him.” Of course the spider wants to keep all the wisdom and tries to hide it at the top of a tall tree, but is ultimately frustrated and realizes the futility of trying to hoard the world’s wisdom. The moral of the story—that those who try to hoard knowledge and power must ultimately be frustrated—seems to be aimed at bolstering Alvis’s spirits by suggesting that Union or Reconstruction authorities will, like Anansi, receive their comeuppance.
Having a former slave deliver the message, however, is a narrative oversight that is hard to ignore. Although some slaves certainly stayed with former masters after the end of the Civil War, Marcella’s uncomplicated sense of Alvis as the downtrodden party seems to gloss over the subordinate status that she shared with roughly four million former slaves across the nation. Especially given her improbably elevated syntax and diction—her language skills and education seem to be equal to her former master—this portion of the narrative seems to offer a not-so-subtle whitewash that encourages readers to admire Alvis Stevens by overlooking his participation in the less commendable practice of chattel slavery. While this sort of apologist approach might be pardonable in a character from an historical novel set in the 1860s, it is considerably less suitable when voiced by a modern day narrator.
Once Stevens is forced to flee Virginia and try his luck in Brazil, the novel continues to present readers with two-dimensional characterization. This is not to say that the narrative casts all the Brazilians in a bad light, but rather that their moral standing seems to be overly reliant on how much or how little they mirror the southern code that Alvis (and the narrator, apparently) has brought with him from Virginia. The sequence describing the hunt for a giant anaconda that has been killing livestock, for example, makes it clear that it’s important to the book that readers understand that Alvis is an outsider and that he is finer. That Alvis proves to be the only hunter of the entire party capable of killing the giant snake is something the narrative seems to hold up as proof of his inherent superiority. When the local hunters discover that Stevens has almost single-handedly dispatched the monster, they “gave proof of their joy and admiration, shouting, and crowding about him.”
Upon returning to the fazenda where he’s been living, the old planter who is Stevens’s host cries out significantly, “‘You are the master of the hunt.’” Reminiscent of the story in which St. George slays the dragon, Stevens’s struggle with the killer snake seems calculated to demonstrate not his own heroic superiority so much as the superiority of the antebellum southern culture that he represents. This presentation of Stevens as a symbol of obvious and pure superiority, however, is problematic in a contemporary novel. Relegating Stevens (and the characters around him) to simple moral examples robs the narrative of vitality and verisimilitude. More than that, it diminishes what could have been an interesting look into the complex and perhaps impenetrable motives of an interesting collection of southern figures, offering instead a fantastic depiction of ostensibly southern values based on a suspect understanding of racial and cultural difference that many readers will, I believe, hope we left in the nineteenth century.
Although well plotted and supported by some very strong writing, ultimately the difficulty that this novel presents its readers has to do with context. Our sense of the issues that define the Reconstruction-era South has become complicated and tales of southern valor in the 1860s that don’t reflect at least some of that complication are bound to come up short. Were this novel about the thorny moral question surrounding Reconstruction policy or even a realistic attempt to understand the psychological position of those southerners who chose to emigrate, it would be fair to ask readers to suspend certain disbeliefs. Likewise, were this novel from the 1800s, twenty-first-century readers could approach it with a certain grain of salt. Confederado, however, is neither of these, and its story, while exciting and appealing in more than a few ways, leaves the reader a kind of Hobson’s choice of either overlooking or accepting the novel’s subtle assertion of ideologies that are not so tasteful.
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