Reviewed by Donna Meredith
It’s the history woven into the tale that grabbed me most in Michael H. Rubin’s debut novel, The Cottoncrest Curse.
Thoroughly researched, this historical thriller captures the high drama of the Civil Rights Era’s Freedom Riders and Knights of the White Camellia and offers authentic details concerning the harvesting of sugarcane and sharecropping. The novel takes readers on an epic journey from czarist Russia to post-Reconstruction South to Cajun territory in the swamps of Louisiana and the streets of New York City and New Orleans.
Because the novel spans several generations, it contains considerable back story, so the plot doesn’t fly along at the breakneck pace of a traditional thriller. Instead, it meanders through meticulously constructed landscapes of city, country, and bayou in the style of more literary fiction.
On the first page, a docent informs tourists—and readers—that a murder once happened in the antebellum Cottoncrest mansion. The second chapter lapses into the past when the murder took place. The rest of the novel reveals who-dun-it and why with frequent voyages into characters’ pasts.
At the center stands Jake Gold, a peddler who usually tries to hide his identity as an immigrant fleeing from Russia. Jake, a Jew, immediately wins our sympathy because he is so often the victim of prejudice, both abroad and in the States. At the same time, his kindness, intelligence, and lack of pretension earn him friends of all colors and social classes. Jake is accused of murdering an elderly colonel and his comely young wife with one of the razor-sharp knives he sells. But did he? Or did someone else? Or did this married couple become the latest victims of the curse that has plagued the owners of the Cottoncrest plantation?
Sheriff Raifer Jackson aims to find out. He is assisted by a deputy who makes Barney Fife seem brilliant by comparison. A physician and the Knights of the White Camellia also are weapons in the sheriff’s arsenal.
But Jake has his own allies: the many store owners, housewives, and humble citizens he’s sold needles, thread, fabric, and knives to over the years. Adding another layer to the mystery, Jake is not the only one hiding his true identity because of prejudice, but to reveal more would be a plot-spoiler. Surprises abound until the final pages, which reveal this truth: “each of us bears witness only to our own version of the truth, and . . . this incomplete vision blinds us in some way that we can never comprehend.”
Rubin employs many different points of view in the story, including chapters set in the present day using a storyteller’s monologue. The storyteller sections are the least captivating, since they rely on telling rather than showing. Fortunately, these chapters tend to be short. The majority of the chapters, set in 1893, tend to be omniscient narration, shifting often to different characters. Generally this technique works smoothly, though early in the novel it is jarring when only the last couple of paragraphs of several chapters are delivered from an alternate viewpoint.
All in all, readers are likely to find the novel an enjoyable read as they journey along with Jake Gold.
Michael H. Rubin is a nationally-known public speaker, a professional jazz pianist, and the author of a number of non-fiction books covering a variety of legal issues. In addition, he practices law full time and serves an adjunct professor, teaching courses on ethics, real estate, and finance at three of the four law schools in Louisiana. The Cottoncrest Curse was published by the Louisiana State University Press.
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