“To the Manor Born” by Matthew Speiser

Like the TV series, The Man From High Castle, Matthew Speiser’s To the Manor Born  (Black Rose Publishing 2023) is an alternate history. Instead of asking what the world would have looked like if Germany had won WWII, Speiser’s book asks what if the American Civil War had ended differently. The result is an imaginative, riveting story full of suspense and action as characters sort out their values and what risks they will take to achieve them.

The story takes place in the present day with the assumption that the Civil War was a draw rather than a victory, and skirmishes at the border continue to break out. The Confederates control land stretching from Virginia to Los Angeles. The United States holds all states north of that. By employing multiple viewpoints, Speiser offers insights into how various factions feel about their society.

Two enslaved Americans—Atticus and Clara Brooke—emerge as courageous leaders at Rosewood Manor, a sweeping plantation in the foothills of Virginia. (A White mob in the Florida town of Rosewood massacred Blacks and destroyed the town in 1923, so the name is fraught with horrifying connotation.) Atticus and Clara add a touch of romantic love to the novel as well. The South refers to them as “indents,” short for indentured, rather than as slaves. The euphemism helps the aristocracy delude themselves into thinking they are a bit better than their forebears since owning people is now illegal. It is only their labor that can be owned. Supposedly, beating indents is also illegal, but no one enforces that law. Scars reveal the truth.

Yeoman—Whites not born into the aristocracy—are not free in the South either. For example, they can’t vote or hold certain jobs.

Representing the aristocracy and unwavering devotion to the ideals of the Old South are Franklin and Cathryn Brooke, the Confederacy’s highest-ranking general and his northern-born bride. They own Rosewood Manor. Cathryn has the zeal of a convert. She recalls what was wrong with the United States (and what many would say is still wrong with it):

But it’s true there was anger toward the Confederacy. The whole country was full of it. People could say anything they wanted, and they did. They’d get so carried away there’d be brawls in the streets, screaming on television, and it coarsened all of us. It bludgeoned us. . . . It was the kind of anger that can bubble up and explode at any point, taking the whole of society with it.  . . . We were . . . tied up by all that hate, everyone blind to what they shared, making whole battles of whatever little slivers of difference they could find.

The Brookes also admire the agrarian ideals the South has held onto. As Cathryn points out, “It hadn’t made itself beautiful, but neither had it destroyed the beauty bestowed upon it.” No industrialization, no paved roads, to mar the landscape.

On the other hand, many in the younger generation have their doubts about the rigid hierarchy of Southern society. Two of these are General Brooke’s daughter Liza and a neighbor Kevin Donleau. Their questions lead to involvement with the Resistance. Another is Dale Birch, whose role is that of a double agent, serving the South as a member of the Guard, while also leading the Resistance. Kevin and Dale become rivals for Liza’s heart. Speiser does an admirable job of revealing the true mettle of these characters when they are confronted with opportunities to make a difference.

Action and suspense run high as Clara, Atticus, Kevin, Dale, and Liza take great risks to change the world they live in. As Dale says, “Stability’s important. But it’s nothing without justice.” And they seek nothing less than justice for all.

This intriguing novel provides a lens to examine our society anew, to assess our strengths and weaknesses, to decide what is worth fighting for.

Matthew Speiser

Matthew Speiser is author of the novel Sons of Liberty, in addition to numerous pieces grappling with American history, in publications ranging from the Tennessee Historical Quarterly to McSweeney’s. His doctoral dissertation examined battles over our national memory of the Civil War, which were waged long after the actual battlefields had quieted. As Chair of the History department at the Marymount School in Manhattan, Dr. Speiser engages with the legacy of America’s past every day. He holds a PhD in U.S. History from the University of Virginia.


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