May Read of the Month: “Slant of Light,” by Steve Wiegenstein

Review by Cameron Williams

The concept of utopia—an ideal community composed of men and women living together in social and political harmony—has been a popular trope in literature since Plato first penned The RepublicSlant of Light (Blank Slate Press), Steve Wiegenstein’s first novel, breathes new life into this genre, (re)imagining the possibility of utopia at a pivotal and precarious moment in American history.

The novel is the first in Wiegenstein’s Daybreak series. It’s set in the Missouri Ozarks during the latter part of the 1850s, shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War. James Turner, an idealistic, forward-thinking writer and public speaker, has set out to realize his dream. He has recruited a band of like-minded people and obtained a plot of land, and he hopes to begin a new society—his own utopia—by founding a community called Daybreak.

Turner’s followers are not looking for wealth and gold, like those traveling to Oregon and California at this time, but are looking to fulfill an ideal: to live in harmony with nature and with man. Daybreak, as Turner and his followers envision it, will be place of “pure democracy, universal suffrage, and the common ownership of property.”

Turner has instructed his new bride, Charlotte, to stay behind in Kansas until he sends for her. Charlotte, however, is not a woman to wait on any man. Despite her reservations about what she thinks is Turner’s “hasty” endeavor, Charlotte—as independent as she is intelligent—pairs up with Adam Cabot, a Harvard educated abolitionist, and the two make their own journey to Daybreak.

But, as Charlotte’s father wisely cautions, “Man is a wolf to man.” The pitfalls of Turner’s “great experiment” soon become all too apparent. Turner begins to crack under the pressure of leading this new community while Charlotte, similarly, finds the difficulties of rural life too much to take. As the war between the North and South nears, the entire community—particularly Cabot, whose strong abolitionist sympathies impel him to join the cause—learns that pure democracy, peace, and non-violence are not always feasible.

Wiegenstein’s passion for history shines in his writing, as does his respect for his family heritage (Wiegenstein is “a Missouri Ozarks man born and bred”). His novel is an exciting and original take on the history of America becoming America, full of complex characters and rich, realistic dialogue. Slant of Light is the perfect summer read for any fan of historical fiction.

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