He believed he had already lived long enough. He thought he was over the age of thirty – Jacob Howard was thirty, and they had been born around the same time – and Cassius looked that and more. He now studied the land as if he would never see it again, and tried to memorize it as if he might need to describe it one day. Indeed the land was elegant and sculpted and green and fertile, yet he was so unconnected to it that its beauty did not move him. He believed that he made no mark whatsoever on the land. He memorized but did not imagine carrying the memory with him to a better world. he could not imagine any kind of world that would come with death. He simply saw the end of his time, and in the quiet that followed, he found comfort. -From Sweetsmoke, page 12-
He grieved, he grieved as he looked a the men piled dead alongside the actively dying; he grieved that they would so willingly give up so much just to keep him in subjugation. -From Sweetsmoke, page 276-
David Fuller’s debut novel Sweetsmoke is set on a Virginia plantation in 1862. We hear the story through the point of view of Cassius, a slave to the Howard family, whose distinctive voice is unforgettable. Cassius has worked hard as a carpenter for Hoke Howard and his loyalty has earned him favors on the plantation as well as resentment from the slaves who toil in the fields. Then Cassius gets word that his friend Emoline – a freed slave who is part fortune teller and part herbalist – has been murdered. When he realizes her death will go unpunished, Cassius’ anger at his people’s enslavement and ill treatment bubbles over and he decides to seek revenge against Emoline’s murderer. His investigation not only uncovers secrets, political intrigue and betrayal…but opens a door to his heart which he had thought forever closed.
Sweetsmoke is a rich atmospheric novel of the South during the Civil War. Entwined in the story are the frequent injustices and crimes against enslaved blacks including beatings, hobblings and the theft of children who are torn from their mothers’ breasts to be sold into slavery. Fuller writes gripping dialogue and offers the reader characters who are complex and memorable. The reader’s heart will ache for Marriah, grow cold toward Ellen, and pound with fear for Cassius as the pages to this novel seem to turn themselves.
Perhaps most moving of all is the glimpse into the mind of a man who has only known slavery but who is still able to dream of freedom. Fueled by his love for Emmoline, Cassius is willing to risk everything to right the wrong of her death and in doing so he awakens a part of himself he thought had died.
“And you would seek poor Emoline’s killer?”
It seems that I would.
“In the midst of a furious war, where dead white men are common and the death of a free black woman carries less weight than that of a horsefly, for when the horsefly meets its end it ceases to be an irritant, you imagine that you will find her killer?” -From Sweetsmoke, page 134-
Sweetsmoke is subtle, beautifully written and compelling. It is a story which reminds the reader of a shameful time in history when the color of one’s skin meant humiliation and sometimes death. But it is also a story of courage and honor in the quest for freedom, and a portrayal of what it means to have one’s own identity.