Civil War fiction can be a hit or miss proposition and one has to look no further than to two books that are now considered to be classics to make that point. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is on one end of the spectrum and Gone with the Wind is on the other. Both are sentimental representations of slavery in the American South, one taking an emphatic negative view and the other an almost positive one, with definite agendas and strong points-of-view but neither is even remotely realistic. David Fuller’s Sweetsmoke falls somewhere in the middle of the two when it comes to point-of-view, and it better represents slavery at the time of the Civil War than either of the two more famous books despite suffering from its own moments of unreality.
Cassius, one of the slaves owned by Hoke Howard on the plantation he calls Sweetsmoke, is in a unique position there due to his carpentry skills. Neither field hand nor house slave, he has managed to carve out a relatively independent position for himself, one that requires a minimum of supervision or oversight from others and allows him to wander the plantation almost at will. But Cassius has a skill of which he is even prouder than his carpentry mastery, his ability to read and write, something he secretly learned from a woman he has come to see as a substitute mother, Emolie Jolie, a now-freed black woman who nursed him back to health in her home during one of the worst periods of his life. This is a talent, of course, that Cassius must never admit to having, but one that he often secretly uses to his advantage around the plantation and when his duties take him into town.
Cassius has his life forever changed when his friend and secret teacher, Emolie, is cruelly murdered by a blow to the back of her head one night. He becomes obsessed with identifying her killer and avenging her death, a seemingly impossible task for a slave who hardly dares speak to white people and is supposedly confined to the grounds of Sweetsmoke. Through a combination of circumstances and the help of a Northern spy who seems to be just a rogue smuggler of Northern goods into the South, Cassius is able to piece together a theory to explain Emolie’s death and identify her killer.
Determined more than ever to avenge the murder, he heads north in search of Lee’s army and the man he believes killed his surrogate mother. As he moves steadily northward, Cassius barely escapes slave traders and meets soldiers from both armies, Underground Railroad volunteers risking their own freedom, and slaves now working for the benefit of both sides. Needless to say, this adventure of a lifetime changes Cassius Howard in ways that will never allow him to be the same man he was when he left Sweetsmoke.
David Fuller has created a believable world through which he explores the horrific effects that slavery had on both those who were kept as slaves and those who owned them. A section of the book describing a celebratory gathering of slaves from several nearby plantations, a dance and feast during which they were left virtually to themselves, is particularly affecting and memorable. Unfortunately, other aspects of Fuller’s story do not always read so realistically. The reader is asked to believe, for instance, that Cassius, a man who had just a few days in which to learn how to read and write, is able to do both so well that he is able to comprehend all the nuances of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when he steals his master’s copy of the play and to forge the passes he needs to seemingly authorize his travel away from Sweetsmoke on his own. But perhaps the book’s biggest stretch is the relative ease with which Cassius makes his way to Lee’s army in Maryland and back to the plantation. If it had been this easy to cross into a Union state in 1862 there would likely have been no slaves left in the South by the end of the war some three years later.
Sweetsmoke is still a worthy addition to the collections of those who enjoy Civil War fiction, however, and it is filled with memorable characters, both black ones and white ones, especially Cassius Howard himself, a man who managed to transform himself from slave to detective and dared to seek vengeance for the death of a woman no one seemed to miss but him.
Rated at: 4.0