Reviewed by Donna Meredith
Extensive research led to a compelling depiction of Dallas, Texas, just before the Civil War in Henry Chapell’s novel, Silent We Stood.
The story develops from a fire that destroyed much of the city in 1860, when fear of slave rebellion gripped the South following John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. With no evidence that such a rebellion was brewing in Dallas, a vigilance committee decides to scapegoat three slaves as ringleaders, charging them with setting the fire, which likely was not deliberately set at all. The committee sentences these three to death by hanging and every slave in the town is severely beaten. Those historical facts provide the seed for this challenging work of literary fiction.
Fragments of the novel are titled “A Father’s Reminiscence,” transcribed in 1911. The identity of the father remains hidden until near the end, and even then careful reading is required to solve the mystery.
Chapell writes chapters from the viewpoints of various characters. One key figure is Reverend Ignatius Bodeker, an abolitionist preacher. At first, Brother Ig is timid about rousing opposition to slavery with his sermons. Bolder ministers have been beaten and jailed, and Ig and his friends worry that firebrands bring unwanted attention to those hiding runaway slaves. Prone to mood swings, the preacher takes to his bed for days in despair. With clarity and beauty, Chapell describes Bodeker’s emotional state:
Joy armed him against the pain, allowed him to survive it. He let it wash over him, inhaled it. It went to his fingertips, to the roots of his teeth. He felt it on his skin . . . Evil existed to be defeated. Out of suffering and battle came ecstasy.
As Ig Bodeker struggles to act upon his conscience, his angst and growth provide some of the most interesting and nuanced characterization in the novel.
Ig’s attractive wife Rachel, an avid abolitionist, goads him to ramp up his sermons. While her overweight husband is away preaching in other towns, she begins an affair with a local undertaker and carpenter, Joseph Shaw. This betrayal generates considerable awkwardness since Brother Ig and Shaw are close friends and work for the same cause. This thread in the story creates suspense, leading readers to wonder if the adultery will be uncovered and what will happen if it is.
Shaw’s apprentice, Samuel Smith, is a crypto-freedman, pretending to be a slave both for personal safety and to help free other slaves. Shaw and Smith initiate Underground Railroad activities in Texas. As undertakers, they have reason to travel frequently, which enables them to transport slaves, and their carpentry skills are useful in crafting hidden compartments for bodies.
A thinking man, Joseph Shaw admits to himself that if his parents had not moved to Ohio when he was a child, he might have accepted slavery as most people tend to adopt the mores of those who surround them. He feels the isolation a person must endure if he “conspired daily to commit treason.” He ponders that he might spend his whole life in Dallas, “breaking the law and engaging in pleasant commerce and conversation with people who would see him hanged if they truly knew him.”
When Rebekah, a surly slave, catches the eye of Samuel Smith, he buys her from a family all too willing to rid themselves of the unwilling servant. Initially, she resents Samuel because she views him as a cowardly, acquiescent slave. And she despises Joseph as a slaveowner, part of the barbaric system that sold off her family and beat her mercilessly for attempting to escape. Her attitude changes when she learns the truth about their efforts to free slaves. At last, she gives her love to Samuel, a love that exacts a terrible price.
One mythical character appearing occasionally is a one-armed man, known sometimes as David Singlearm and other times as Levin McGregor. Again, close reading is required to understand his role in the lives of other characters.
From the novel’s beginning, readers know three men will hang. Suspense builds as readers meet the various characters and wonder how their abolitionist activism will be uncovered and, ultimately, which ones will hang.
Silent We Stood is no easy read, but it yields the pleasure of unraveling the threads of a complicated yarn. It is a testimony to the universal struggle of humans to find freedom, and the heroism of those who risk everything to ensure that liberty and justice for all is not simply an ideal but a reality.
Henry Chapell is the author of two previous novels, Blood Kin and The Callings, and four nonfiction books, as well as various magazine articles. He lives with his family in Parker, Texas.
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