The year is 1862, and the Civil War rages through the South. On a Virginia tobacco plantation, another kind of battle soon begins.
"A fascinating and gripping novel about the Civil War. The slave, Cassius Howard, is a great fictional character, and his story is part mystery, part love story, and a harrowing portrait of slavery that reads with the immense power of the slave narratives."
--Pat Conroy, author of Beach Music and South of Broad
"David Fuller vividly and movingly describes the life of Cassius, a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Sweetsmoke resonates with unforgettable characters, and is a gripping story of loss and survival."
--Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South
"Fuller works hard to give us a mid-19th century world that feels authentic, from small details . . . to the larger sprawl of the plantation . . . captivating."
--The New York Times Book Review
"The plot unfolds at a brisk pace, and Fuller does an especially good job with the battle scenes . . . Cassius, who has never drawn a single breath as a free man, is a compelling character from the start. Sweetsmoke is a well-imagined and researched novel of survival and courage."
"Featuring slave traders, smugglers and spies, the novel transports us to a chilling milieu in which human beings are humiliated, and the slaves have a forlorn hope of freedom, decency and dignity . . . Sweetsmoke haunts us long after the final page is turned."
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About the Author
David Fuller has been a screenwriter for 25 years. He became fascinated with the role of African Americans in World War II as a young man when he befriended an African American pilot and worked closely with him for years. Fuller lives in Los Angeles with his wife, a VP for Twentieth Century Fox, and twin sons. Sweetsmoke is his first novel.
Read an Excerpt
July 1, 1862
The big one closed his hand into a fist and took a step toward the smaller boy. He was tall and narrow, ten-years-old, and black; his joints bulged in rude knobs, his long bones had grown quickly and suddenly and the meat in between was strung taut like piano wire. A stiff muslin shirt, his only item of clothing, hung to the top of his thighs, barely covering his buttocks and the skin that stretched over his angular pelvic bones. Dust powdered his thin legs and turned his calves pale, and his bare feet left significant shapes in the dirt. The smaller one, the white one, should have been afraid. He wore a gingham shirt with soft trousers held up by suspenders and he had real shoes. But skin showed between shoe and cuff, and the trousers bagged at the knees, shiny there and thin.
Cassius had not noticed the worn material of the boy's trousers until that moment, and wondered if the condition of the white children's clothing was another casualty of the Confederate quartermasters. Then he wondered what the boy's grandmother thought about it.
The white one, grandson of the planter, stood his ground, hands open at his side; in that moment, Cassius remembered himself standing barefoot in the same yard, facing another white boy twenty years before, this one's father. On that day, Cassius had yet to understand that he was another man's property, and now the steam of humiliation flushed through him as if he was standing there again, reliving the past.
Cassius made no move. He had not witnessed the boyhood conflict that had brought on this moment, but he knew how it would end.
Andrew, the tall, black one, should also have known. He had older brothers in the field, and even if by their compassion they hesitated to warn him, he should have known he was alone and surrounded. None of the black children seemed to know, but the white children knew, and one of them ran to the kitchen for Mam Rosie.
Mam Rosie was out in an instant, humping down the steps, wiping her hands down her apron, an old woman lean as a rope twisted tight, coming on fast. Mam Rosie showed no fear, she was high yellow and had privileges, but she was also conscious of the precise limits of her power. She came fast but Cassius knew there was time -- the two boys were there in the dirt, the other children were near the wilting camellias by the big house porch steps and Nanny Catherine watched over her shoulder. No rush at all, thought Cassius, as his eyes drifted toward the work sheds behind the big house. The smoke house was there, and the sheds for carpentry, blacksmithing and shoe making. Then the barns and beyond them the shed for curing tobacco -- the old woman still running -- and Cassius's eyes slid to the low rise beyond which, out of sight, stood the Overseer's house and past that the quarters. Acres of fields rolled out in three directions where maturing tobacco grew tall. The children's gardening chores were done, the butter churn put away, and the air was soft with moisture and sunlight and insects sawing, plenty of time on most days, but not today, as Mam Rosie was quick but not quick enough, and Andrew swung. He opened his hand at the last second and slapped young Charles's ear.
Cassius closed his eyes at the sound. Every child, every adult, every creature in the yard paused, and the future came into Cassius's mind as clearly as he remembered his own past: Tomorrow Andrew would be obliged to work the fields with his brothers and parents. He would learn about it that night in the quarters, and his heart would be glad because with the news would arrive his first pair of trousers and his first hat and something that passed for shoes. His parents would see his gladness and their eyes would meet in resignation. Their son, their little one, the baby, already going to the fields, two years early. In the morning before sunup, Mr. Nettle would ring the bell rousing Andrew from his place on the pallet between mother and father, torn from sleep with trembling stomach, expected to consume a full meal by candlelight with the sun barely a rumor. He would never again sleep between them. He would eat little and regret it later. Walking in the dark to the fields, his new shoes would pinch and the lower legs of his trousers would cling, wet with dew and cold against his shins. They would assign him a row to pick hornworms off tobacco leaves, the hands working quickly, quickly to save the crop. He was to inspect each leaf top and bottom, plucking hornworms as they grasped with their sturdy legs and strong tiny jaws. The sun would step into the sky and dry his trousers and the heat would gradually increase, unnoticed until he moved, when he would discover his body reluctant, leaden. He would beg for a rest. His mother Savilla would shift in her row to grant him shade from her thick body as she continued to pluck hornworms, but then his mother, his mother, would guide his fingers back to the work. Eventually she would yield to his complaints and pour hornworms from her sack into his, hastily attacking his section to deceive Mr. Nettle the Overseer. But Big Gus the Driver would know and when he came by she would be forced back to her row. They would not beat him, though, not on his first day. In time, when exhaustion, blisters, soreness and sweat became routine, he would think back and remember that slap. Andrew would never return to play with the other children.
Mam Rosie cuffed Andrew on his ear, a loud and obvious blow that she hoped would satisfy the planter's grandson. Her gnarled fingers squeezed the back of Andrew's smooth dry neck and steered him aside. Mam Rosie pretended Charles was not there, but Cassius saw the boy's reddened ear and knew something would happen. He waited for Charles to order Mam Rosie to bind Andrew's wrists high to the ring on the whipping post, to order her to pull up Andrew's shirt and expose his back. Cassius knew Mam Rosie would do what she was told, whispering to calm Andrew as she secured him to the post while he twisted and bucked in outrage. He waited for Charles to tell Mam Rosie to run fetch the whip. Cassius saw meanness in Charles's face as he controlled his tears, and then Charles's eyes found Cassius's eyes and when Cassius did not look away, Charles saw that Cassius knew, and Charles would have to do something. It was of no consequence that he was ten-years-old. This was white man's pride.
"Cassius, you git along now and fetch me some water," said Charles.
I don't think I hear you, said Cassius aloud but not loud enough for Charles to hear.
"What's that you say? What's that?" said Charles.
Beautiful day, said Cassius, again too quietly to be heard.
Cassius gripped the heavy hammer in his right hand, nails in his left, and pressed his leg against the fence post where his knee and the top of his foot held the stave in place. A tan and gray feral cat, kitten in her mouth, sauntered into the shade under the big house porch. Sweat coated his skin and fat oily drops clung to his nose, eyebrows and chin. The air would not cool until long after dark. Mr. Nettle's wife came around the far corner returning from the privy, using her wide skirt to funnel her three small Nettles ahead of her, suddenly alerted by the tension, wondering what she had missed. A bantam rooster lurched with a high-step in the yard, one eye warily on the shadow where the cat had disappeared.
"I said git, boy," said Charles.
Cassius probed his own facial expression from within, finding it locked into a blank, uncomprehending stare, reaching back to know it had been just so at the moment Charles had met his eyes. But Cassius still did not look away. His mind remained trapped in the past, barefoot in his own stiff shirt, not yet knowing who he was or what would come of his defiance. Charles's eyes reflected uncertainty; he knew there should be no hesitation. The yard by the big house was unnaturally quiet. Cassius became aware of the song then, the ever-present song that rose out of the fields, brought louder up the hill by a shift in the wind. He did not notice that the smell came as well.
Cassius turned back to the fence stave and expertly angled a nail, bringing the hammer, driving it three-quarters home with one swing.
"I'll tell her, Cassius, I'll tell Grandma Ellen!" Charles said. He spit out Cassius's name and walked to the big house.
Mam Rosie stood with Andrew, looking at Cassius, a warning flashing in her eyes.
* * *
On the second floor, Ellen Howard read aloud to her servants a news story from a two-day old copy of the Richmond Daily Whig, reliving General Lee's victory at Gaines' Mill, the third battle fought in as many days. She read dramatically, expecting her servant, Pet, and her daughter's personal servants, Susan and Pearl, to be properly moved. The early months of the war had brought a constant stream of terrible news that had laid a pall over the Confederacy. The newspapers bemoaned the inevitability of the war's rapid conclusion in favor of the Union, and Ellen had been deeply traumatized. The culmination of the bitter news came with the fall of New Orleans in April, and her natural gloom settled into depression. But soon followed the campaign in Virginia, and a series of victories over Union General George McClellan's enormous army brought unexpected joy to the populace. Ellen Howard, however, was slow to trust good news, afraid to emerge from her comfortable cocoon of dread and ennui. Already feared as a thin-skinned and distant Mistress, she had grown unpredictable after the news of her oldest son John-Corey Howard's death at Manassas Junction during the first battle of the war. John-Corey had been named for her father, the late Judge Ezra John Corey, a man she had adored. Ellen's bitterness over her son's death grew when informed that the Yankees had ridden out from Washington, D.C. in their buggies with picnic lunches to enjoy the spectacle of their soldiers defeating the Johnny Rebs. She was little cheered to know they had been forced to flee in haste and terror when the South had answered the cocksure Yankees with blood. A number of John-Corey's belongings had arrived with a letter of condolence, his watch but not the winding key, his slouch hat and his precious collection of received letters, many of which were written in her hand.
She was not to view her son's remains. Perhaps because she could not picture him dead, a dreamy part of her was able to imagine the war as unreal, envisioning John-Corey alive on his own plantation outside Lynchburg, or here, in the big house, hiding as he had as a child. As long as she did not see his body, she could pretend that the war did not exist, certain that all this foolishness would soon be revealed as a test of character. On such days the house people would hear her humming, alone in a bedroom, through an open door down a long hallway, and they would look at one another and disguise their anxiety with covert, derisive laughter. Missus actin strange, Missus goin off in her head, Missus havin one'a them days so watch out. Reality would eventually intrude, in the form of the Daily Whig with war news, or she would see a soldier on the road or hear the sudden hum-rumble of cannon that sounded close but would actually have come from somewhere far to the north.
But nothing brought on the reality of her son's death as much as the arrival of his people.
Two weeks before, two of John-Corey's negros had come to Sweetsmoke Plantation in a wagon. John-Corey's other people had been sold, but John-Corey had left instructions that these people were special family and should be kept together. He had neglected to mention his personal body servant in these instructions and so Lewis, who had been by his side when John-Corey died at Manassas and had returned to his plantation to bring to the family the news of his death, had been sold with the others to a cotton and rice plantation in Georgia. John-Corey's last two negros had spent the winter and spring with John-Corey's widow closing up the big house at Howard Plantation. When Stephanie returned to live with her parents, John-Corey's people had been sent to Sweetsmoke. Two weeks now and Ellen had yet to meet them. Half a dozen times she called them to the big house, but each time she had been overcome with nervous emotion. John-Corey's special people brought back the pain of his death, so each time she sent them away without seeing them. She even used the excuse she had heard whispered among her people, that the girl was bad luck, a contagion carried from her son's plantation. Ellen knew the girl had been a good house girl, and the man, her father, had carried the keys. Ellen had not had a butler in the house since her second son Jacob had taken William, the plantation's butler, to be his personal servant when he had joined Turner Ashby's 7th Virginia Cavalry. Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow I'll feel stronger and I'll speak to John-Corey's people. In the meantime, they went to the fields with the others.
Perhaps it was no surprise that Ellen was incapable of meeting her son's people, as her life was now a series of superstitious gestures designed to keep Jacob safe and alive. She had let down her guard for John-Corey. Now she was afraid to alter any of her activities in case doing so should endanger her beloved second son.
In the afternoons she sometimes worked with water colors, upstairs with the windows open to catch the breeze. Before the war, her paintings had been of flowers and landscapes, but once her oldest son had gone off to fight, she began to create fanciful scenes of the Garden of Eden, incorporating many of the flowers and plants she had painted before, as if her previous body of work was but a premonition. Lately, purple storm clouds crowded the edges of her paintings, and more reds were evident in the trunks of the trees and branches, as if their inner cores were heated, athrob with light. In fact, amidst the shortages brought on by war, she was low on blue and green paint and had an abundance of red. Her husband fretted over her work, but the new red pleased her and she reached for it willfully.
Ellen paused in her reading to her people after the pleasure of speaking the words Gaines' Mill, feeling the syllables in her mouth as her tongue formed the final 'l' with a rubbery push off where the top of her mouth met her teeth. The wind changed then and brought the new smell through the open window and she lost the track of the sentence. Her body servant Pet smelled it as well, and unconsciously imitated Missus Ellen's rigid pose. Ellen recognized the smell and envisaged field dirt and sweat, moist body crevices and hidden hair and oil and blood and feces. She waited for the odor to pass. She closed her eyes, her upper lip pronounced, nostrils arched.
"Pet, in my dressing table, bring the bottle."
The bottle from Paris, Missus? said Pet.
Ellen nodded slightly and Pet went to her table. Pet was darker than the others in the big house, thus Pet was anxious about her position, even though she had worked there for four years. When Pet was out of her Missus's sight, she opened the drawer and took up the bottle of perfume. But she moved Missus's best petticoat and found the other bottle, the one that held the laudanum, the bottle Missus was using just a little more every day. Pet looked at that bottle longingly, then covered it over with the petticoat and with her hip pushed in the drawer. Pet had yet to connect her Missus's humming with the laudanum. She returned to Ellen with the Parisian perfume bottle in both hands.
So little left, said Pet.
Ellen took it. She hoarded the precious liquid, chose carefully the occasions to wear it, and even then was miserly when applying the scent as the bottom of the bottle came to sharp focus. She tried not to desire the way she felt when wearing perfume -- elegant, chosen, French -- but this other smell created nothing less than an emergency. She put the smallest possible dab in the hollow of her neck between her clavicles, and when that was insufficient, tipped the bottle to her fingertip and brought it to her philtrum, just a touch of wet applied to her upper lip beneath her nostrils. Her grandson continued to call for her, using that tone, but she did not answer.
* * *
Cassius was not aware that his hammer drove nails in time with the field song. Even when the wind came around and brought the song, he heard it the way he heard the sun on his shoulders or the sound of his own breathing. They were in the near fields this afternoon, within a mile of the big house.
He heard the song change. He rested a moment and turned his head and listened to the new song that told of death. A surge of apprehension drove into his chest. He rested the head of his hammer against the dirt, and the surge pumped in his palms and fingers and made them weak.
He looked down the hill knowing there would be a rider on the road approaching the big house.
Cassius wondered why the rider had stopped in the fields to tell the Overseer. That was how the hands would have learned the news; that was why they changed the song. Big Gus the Driver would have been sure to stand by Mr. Nettle at the moment the Overseer was told. Big Gus, one of the lighter-skinned field hands, worked near Mr. Nettle, and Mr. Nettle let him swing the bullwhip. Big Gus whipped harder than Mr. Nettle, to impress both him and the Master. Cassius pictured the moment, Big Gus bursting with the news, clearing his throat to show off his grand lubricious voice for the women -- I'm comin on to meet you, Lord -- drawing it out so the hands knew he was changing the song. The work would not stop, but the work song would abandon their tongues -- I'm comin on alone -- and spread across the field like a sudden wind spreading a small chop across the glass surface of a lake, and Cassius thought that the tobacco would grow tall humming the song, and those who chewed and snuffed it would taste death -- I'm lookin for to see you, Lord, That me a comin home.
The rider was close now, pink-necked, flush with news. Cassius knew him, Otis Bornock, a poor white. That explained why he had stopped in the fields, Otis Bornock knew Mr. Nettle. Otis Bornock and other town trash sometimes traded with the blacks. They would trade for things made by the hands late at night, or for things that mysteriously disappeared from the big house. That did not make him a friend. Otis Bornock might benefit from the trading, but he was more likely to turn on a black man than to help himself. Otis Bornock had once sold Cassius a bottle of whiskey so vile and raw, that it had taken Cassius an extra day to finish the bottle. Otis Bornock rode the back roads at night with the other Patrollers, and until three years ago, Mr. Nettle had been their leader.
Cassius watched the man come. Who was dead, and how did this death relate to the plantation? Any death that touched the planter family brought on an anxious time of limbo for the blacks. When a white planter, his wife, or one of their children died, ownership of slaves changed hands. Even the smallest peccadillo in a white man, a gambling debt or an illegitimate child, could propel waves through the slave community. Families might be broken up, wives sold from husbands, children sold from mothers. If they were sold to the cotton states, they would not be heard from again.
The pounding of the hooves slowed, the heat and perspiration of the horse crowded the yard, and Otis Bornock swung out of his sweat-black saddle, the seat of his pants clinging to leather, peeling away. The horse was thinner, surcingle straps hanging long under the horse's belly. Everyone was thinner now. Otis Bornock's pearl handled Colt Army revolver glinted momentarily in the sun, his sole proud possession that he claimed to have won in a poker game. Others said he found it on a dead man, and whispers that Otis Bornock had encouraged the man's condition before "finding" the gun added to his reputation. Cassius watched him hurry to the porch. Sweat rolled from his stained hat down the ends of his hair and dripped to his collar. Otis Bornock removed his hat at the door and ran his kerchief across his face. Pet came to the door, haughty and superior in the face of white trash, but Ellen came up behind her and greeted him graciously, even as Cassius saw terror in her eyes. Then she allowed him inside, a man like that, Cassius thought, allowed in her home. Cassius saw that she anticipated the worst possible news. Otis Bornock drew a letter from his back pocket and it was wrinkled and moist and Cassius imagined it stank of Otis Bornock's backside. Young Charles followed him in, quiet as a shadow. Charles understood the impact of the visitor, preceded as he was by the song. Cassius knew he would have to be careful about Charles. He had aroused an enemy, and the boy would not forget.
Cassius listened for the owl screech of anguish, but the silence inside stretched and he knew Master Jacob, Major Jacob Howard, was still alive. Cassius breathed. The planter's family remained intact.
Cassius straightened his shoulders to relieve the strain on his back, where the scar tissue was like a crust. He picked up a pail with fresh water and moved to the chuffing horse, which dropped its nose and drank loudly. While he knew not to water a sweating horse, this was Bornock's beast and Cassius was carrying out a plan. Cassius looked toward the door to Mam Rosie's kitchen. Once the horse finished, Cassius would walk to the pump by the kitchen to refill. By then, Mam Rosie would know the news.
Ellen came out of the big house onto the porch, the rider standing behind her in the dark of the room. She held the unfolded note in her hand.
"Cassius!" she called.
He set down the pail and stepped away from the horse into her line of view.
Yes, Missus Ellen, said Cassius.
"Mr. Bornock tells me the French gate leans."
That's so, Missus Ellen.
Cassius knew Bornock had said nothing of the kind, nor did he mention that the main gate had been leaning since the day it was built, that it had almost certainly leaned back in France on that vineyard.
"You go directly and straighten it out."
Yes, Ma'am. Right after I finish this fence Master Charles knocked down.
"That will have to wait. You get on down there like I said. And do it right the first time, Cassius, not like your usual."
I will, Missus.
She nodded to the rider, dismissing him. Otis Bornock returned to his horse and remounted. Cassius was not to know the news. Ellen would wait for Master Hoke, her husband, to return from Edensong later that afternoon to tell him. Young Charles stood in the doorway, staring at Cassius. Cassius could not help himself; he looked directly at Charles, and saw malicious satisfaction on the boy's face. The identity of the dead was bad news for Cassius, and everyone knew who it was but him.
Cassius collected his hammer and nails and a coil of rope. He listened to the horse hooves fade down the hill. He did not fetch from his carpentry shed the tools he would require to complete the work. He went directly down the hill to the main gate. One of the house girls, probably Nanny Catherine, was crying in Mam Rosie's kitchen. But he could not go there to discover why. Ellen Howard had made sure that he would not find out.
* * *
The main gate was from a vineyard in France, bought off the property by Hoke Howard on a European visit back in the days when money was in season. The field hands often told the story, heard second or third-hand, of Master Hoke riding in the French countryside, pulling up when he saw the magnificent gate. Well, Ol' Massa Hoke, he used to gettin what he want and he knows that gate belong not in France but on his plantation in the Commonwealth of Virginie, so he do what any self respectin Massa'd do, he walk on up to that ol' Frenchy's door and offer up a big ol' sack a' money like them burlap ones we got in the fields. The hands seemed to think it was so much money -- and with every recounting the amount increased -- that Mr. Frenchy had been astonished, but when Cassius heard the story, he imagined the Frenchman suppressing a smirk as he allowed himself to be overpaid. Cassius knew that when Hoke was flush, he threw around his money the way he threw around his weight, randomly, in grand pointless gestures. So Hoke had hired people to systematically break down the gate, numbering each piece as a local man made a drawing. The crates were then shipped back to the Commonwealth in one of his merchant ships -- before the blockade, when Hoke was still part owner of a fleet -- but along the way, the numbered drawing was lost. Here the hands out-embellished one another, describing the Old Master in a comic rage dismissing ships full of careless white men.
The gate was made of cedar, an overblown trellis that straddled the narrow road leading up to the big house, a vain and solitary structure in a vast landscape. While performing his apprenticeship as a carpenter -- and it was Hoke who had offered to take him out of the fields so he could take up carpentry -- Cassius had helped reconstruct the gate as it emerged from the crates, piecing it together like a puzzle. Hoke had then painted the name of the plantation across the top: Sweetsmoke....
What People are Saying About This
"David Fuller vividly and movingly describes the life of Cassius, a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Sweetsmoke resonates with unforgettable characters and is a gripping story of loss and survival."--(Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South)
Sweetsmoke is a fascinating and gripping novel about the Civil War. The slave, Cassius Howard, is a great fictional character, and his story is part mystery, part love story, and a harrowing portrait of slavery that reads with the immense power of the slave narratives. A tour de force for David Fuller."--(Pat Conroy, author of Beach Music and South of Broad)
"With Sweetsmoke, David Fuller gives an extraordinarily nuanced, privileged, and convincing view of the world of slavery during the American Civil War, and of the hearts and minds of the men and women who had to live in that world."--(Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising and Toussaint Louverture)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was the most touching and heartbreaking story of slavery I have ever read. I'm actually listening to it on Audio and the narrator is EXCELLENT. I could not have gotten the same out of this book if I would have read it on my own. He puts in the accents and Southern 'draws' to where you can actually visualize the places, the roads, the towns, the tobacco fields, the clothes and the 'big houses'. I now want to re-watch 'Roots' with more understanding. The Blacks in America were treated horribly. Not half as bad as the Indians however, because the Blacks (as stated in this book) were cared for, fed and clothed as they were considered property. The Indians were thrown on reservations and forgotten. Both are scars on America history. The key word here is 'history'. Hopefully we have learned to appreciate what price our ancestors have paid for our freedom. This even includes women. We are all free and have the right to vote. All of us!
Wow! As much as you always think you know about slavery,you just read this account you cannot imagine how any human being can abuse another such as the treatment Cassius is given in this story. The strength and courage of the "Human Spirit" to actually live through it is amazing!!!
SWEETSMOKE is a deeply compelling novel set in the world of Civil War Virginia. Cassius, David Fuller's protagonist, is a brilliant creation. He's a three dimensional character unlike any other I've read. I was captivated the voices and situations Fuller created. A definite five star debut!
Sweetsmoke, is the name of a fictitious southern plantation owned by Hoke Howard. The story takes place sometime during the Civil War when the roles of owner and master are hanging in the balance. Slaves are running to taste freedom and owners are desperate to maintain the status quo by creating horrific examples of those who dare to flee. Both master and slave are afraid, for the future is precarious and unknown. Hoke Howard is the owner of Sweetsmoke consisting of the land, tobacco crop, livestock and most important of all his slave chattel. Cassius is one of Hoke's favored slaves and for some unexplained reason he is treated differently. Their unique relationship is noticed by the slave community as they perceive freedom given to him that others do not have. Emoline Justice is a freed slave living in town who was once owned by Hoke. She lives in town and is a conjurer, a healer, who nurses Hoke back from a serious injury. During the time he spends with her he learns to read, a punishable offense, often by death. This being Cassuis' weapon, he keeps his secret from everyone. One day, Emoline is found dead, murdered by a crushing blow to her head from behind. Cassius becomes enraged with anger when he is told and has no choice but to seek vengeance for the death of his friend and teacher. To search for the killer, Cassius must leave the plantation requiring all his wit and skills to survive. He has never had so much freedom, but will he run given the chance? Fuller's storytelling is mesmerizing as he unveils hidden secrets of the Sweetsmoke Plantation that intertwine between the slave quarters and the big house. His book is destined to be a major classic of American literature. It should be included on any reading list choice in high schools where there is an American History curriculum and also included in the study of US History in college. David Fuller's writing is beautifully poetic, written with lyrical verse and deep passion. He is an accomplished storyteller whose years of screenwriting experience shows in this debut novel. As in any great movie, I couldn't wait to find out what happens. At the same time I wanted to savor the story and prolong the ending. Let's hope his next book is not too far in the future.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I never wanted to put it down and was sorry when I finished it. I liked the style of writing where it is not alot of he said then she replied, etc. It is writen as though you were there during the conversations. I prefer that. The story is centered on a slave named Cassius and follows him and his fellow slave folk on the SweetSmoke farm during the Civil War. He has always wanted to be a Free Black and there may be an opportunity to achieve that. First he feels it necessary to solve the murder of the woman who cared for him when he was beat close to death. Perhaps even exact some revenge and retribution. The entire story is extremely fascinating and has lead me to read more slave themed books. I highly recommend this book.
This book is very well written, full of imagery, deep and complex characters and heart wrenching emotion. This was a terrible time in our history and this book captures it fully. Cassius and Hoke, the main characters, will probably always be a part of my life from this point forward.
I've been anticipating reading David Fuller's first novel Sweetsmoke since it was released by Hyperion Books at the end of August.
I was captured by the cover image - work worn, lined, loosely clasped hands and I wondered the story behind them.
Fuller spent eight years researching this amazing novel. It tells the tale of Cassius, a slave and carpenter who lives on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. It is 1862 and the Civil War is in full swing. Interestingly Fuller found family connections to both sides of the War during his research.
After suffering a brutal punishment at the hands of his master Hoke Howard, Cassius is allowed to heal at the home of Emoline, a free black woman. Emoline secretly teaches Cassius to read and write. It is these secret lessons that ignite a need for knowledge, a want to know the world beyond the plantation.
"Cassius drove himself toward his journey in a step-by-step fashion, willing to risk everything, to know. To know."
When Emoline is murdered and it appears that no one cares to find the killer, Cassius vows he will find the killer and seek justice for Emoline.
This is a story with many threads, all of then engrossing. Life on the plantation, attitudes and the War are all portrayed with accuracy and detail, bringing to life this period in history. Fuller has also brought to life the lot of a slave, humanizing historical fact, in all it's shame. Although all the characters evoke strong emotions, it is the character of Cassius that kept me reading non stop. His journey towards knowledge and justice, combined with the mystery of Emoline's death is a gripping tale.
Sweetsmoke will be joining another similar book - "Rush Home Road" by Canadian Lori Lansens on my favourites list.
Life on a tobacco plantation circa 1862 is the background of this fascinating novel. It is the eve of the great battle of Antietam. Black and white relationships are beautifully delineated without preaching. The human element is totally credible. There are no villains no heroes. These are humans caught in the web of history living out their lives under difficult circumstances. Superimposed are a complex crime story and a heartbreaking romance. The Battle scenes are the best I have ever read. I would place this book in a special category of classic historical story telling. A must read.
This is an exceptional novel. Can I give more than five stars? Can I give ten? May I please offer twenty! This book has held me for the last several days in suspense, fear, anger, humor and yes despite the subject, joy. I LOVE THIS BOOK and I do not say this lightly. I am not going to go in to the story synopsis, others will have done this far better than I. Suffice it to say that through David Fullers expert writing I lived with the characters, cried with them and suffered with them. This is how good a story teller he is. I laughed - albeit a little bit at the cluelessness of 'frightened' slave owners, as they were trapped in the dysfunctional world of their own making. But what a novel, what a story to tell. Cassius our hero, is a wonder, a very angry man who has the strength and personal will to talk himself out of throttling everyone who 'gets his goat' even though most justly deserve it . He is good/bad, smart/simple, angry... vindictive ...and finally - forgiving. Cassius reaches a place most of us never will, despite being a slave all his life. What an incredible character, and what a great telling of a difficult and terrible part of our nations history. Most highly, HIGHLY recommended. Thank you LibraryThing for the opportunity to view this first hand. I just adored it. Best time I've spent behind a page in a long time. '*****'
Just finished Sweetsmoke by David Fuller which I received as an EarlyReviewer. It is a story set in 1862 Civil War America and the main character is Cassius, a slave. This story incorporates the life on a plantation during the Civil War and the struggles of those enslaved. Cassius is an unusual slave as he is a favorite of his master which gives him more freedom than others. He uses this freedom to investigate the murder of a friend who is a freed black woman. It will not be investigated by anyone else because a free slave is not worth anything but a slave has a monetary value.Fuller has created a page turner of historical fiction that is so interesting I could not put it down. It is a mystery and a love story and a glimpse into that time in America. The life amongst the slaves was fascinating and the belittlement and horrors inflicted on them by the masters who "cared" for them was disturbing.This book will be quite popular when it is released. I predict many book groups will be choosing it as I will be suggesting it to mine.
I've never been a big fan of Civil War fiction, but the unusual description and beautiful cover art drew me to this book, and I'm so glad for it. The story follows a slave, Cassius, who works as a carpenter on the Sweetsmoke plantation and enjoys a relative amount of freedom, at least compared to the other slaves. He has also experienced more than his share of tragedy, losing a son to the slave traders, a wife to suicide, and a mentor to murder. It is the final tragedy, the murder of the free black woman, Cassius' mentor Emoline, that drives him through the rest of the book. For me, though, it was the beautiful writing and Cassius himself who really made this book worth reading. I found myself in a wholly new position, with a new perspective on what it may have been like to live life as a slave. I wanted Cassius to be free, but was terrified for him to run away, certain that he would be caught and tortured. It was an agonizing, entrancing, and ultimately a hopeful book to read, and as a result I'm looking for some new books set in the Civil War. I've been hooked!
Well, I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have gotten past the half-way point if this hadn't come as an early reviewer book, which is why my rating is lower than it would be otherwise. I haven't thought about quitting a book early in a LONG time, but the description in the first thirty pages was grating on me, as was the fact that during every other paragraph, I wanted to literally shout at the author that old saying, "Show, don't tell", because I felt that that's about all he was doing. I also felt Fuller was toying with me at times, holding back information in the beginning for the reason of building tension...Not because it made sense to the story. After fifty pages, I would have sworn that this "book" needed to be a screenplay, not a novel, and even looked back to those early questions to see if they'd asked why he chose this genre (at which point I noticed he'd acknowledged Patrick O'Brian as an influence--one I could see in the beginning).However, the reading picked up. Fuller quietted down some with description and allowed the story to take over, at which point the book engaged me wholly even if I at times wanted more depth to a scene or explanation. I'm still not entirely convinced that this wasn't written to be a movie moreso than a novel, but I enjoyed the story for what it was. I'm not decided if I'll pick up another novel by the author or not--it might come down to my reading the first few pages at the store and putting it back on the shelf if it's too much like this one's beginning. Overall, though, the writing itself is strong and the plot is interesting with mostly believable characters.
Debut author David Fuller made his bones in the screenwriting industry and this is evident upon reading his novel, "Sweetsmoke." The dialogue is crisp and made to read out-loud, capable of thrusting readers back to the Civil War era setting. The plot, however, misses the mark. The book centers around the proud and savy slave, Cassius, who despite his second-class status is hell-bent on finding out who murdered his mentor and close friend, Emoline Justice. He must conduct his search while toiling as a carpenter at Sweetsmoke, a Virginia plantation, in the midst of the War Between the States.Often Fuller seems more focused on setting a scene, describing a character or crafting snippets of his admirable dialogue versus pursuing a believable plot. There's a sense that he was too busy imagining "Sweetsmoke" on the silver screen instead of first bringing it to life in the minds of his readers.
When I snagged this book from LibraryThing's early review offers, I had doubts that an author could do much with the subjects of slavery, the South or the Civil War, that hasn't been done several times over. I was wrong. Fuller has created a unique character in Cassius, a slave who lives on the plantation by the name of Sweetsmoke. This book was a bit of a mystery, a history lesson and a tale of human endurance. The story was so well written that both the character of Cassius and Sweetsmoke (the plantation) seemed to be very real. The war scenes, as seen through the eyes of a slave, were some of the most powerful I have ever read.On reading some of the other reviews, I see that there were those who had problems with too much description. I love reading descriptive novels.....I like knowing the surroundings, the sights and smells of the places my mind is being taken to. Fuller does a wonderful job of setting the stage, he truly has the talent to "take one there".I highly recommend this novel to mystery readers, those who enjoy history and any who are interested in that tumultuous period of America that was the Civil War. I would also say that, in Cassius, Fuller has drawn an intelligent character who viewed life from the stand point of one who was not free, a human being of extrodinary intellegence who, was indeed, the property of another human.
With an abundance of excellent books about the Civil War south and slavery there is no need to read Sweetsmoke. David Fuller's book is part murder mystery, part description of plantation life, and part war novel. Unfortunately because it tries to to fulfill so many roles it fulfills none of them well. By the time the murder mystery was finally solved, I had become distracted by so many other plot lines that I no longer cared who the murderer was. Additionally, with the exception of the main character, the slave Cassius, the characters were undeveloped and uninteresting. For instance, I never could figure out the allure of Emoline, the former slave murdered in the early chapters of the book. I also found it completely unrealistic that Cassius, a previously uneducated man, could learn to read and write so well in such a short period of time. Because much of the plot hinges on this development, I had a hard time appreciating and believing most of the story. The one positive aspect of this book is that it presented the complex relationship between slaves and owners without resorting to stereotypes. Still, this one positive does not compensate for the books many other flaws.
Sweetsmoke was a beautifully written story about Cassius a slave during the Civil War era. The story clearly illustrated the barbarity of slavery but also the dignity and strength of those enslaved. I highly recommend this book.
This is, without a doubt, the best book set during the Civil War that I have read in a long time. It's so hard to get Civil War fiction right, but David Fuller managed to do it with seeming ease. Cassius quickly became one of my overall favorite characters in all of literature, and I can honestly say that I couldn't put this book down. I got it in the mail the day before my wedding, and took it on my honeymoon with me. Not exactly your average beach read, but I just couldn't help myself. Highly recommend this book, as well as everything David Fuller ever produces in the future. He has gained a lifelong fan!
This was an ARC copy, sent to me by a friend. It tells the story of Cassius, a slave in 1862. The one person who helped him learn to feel like a man instead of a piece of property, has been murdered. He wants to avenge her death, an almost impossible task considering that he puts his life in danger every time he leaves the plantation without permission. I found the characters in this book to be very lifelike. They were compelling. The plot itself moved at what seemed a snail's pace to me. Still, the information and setting was interesting. My one bone to pick is with the author's decision to not enclose the dialog of the slaves in quotation marks. I understand the artistic decision, representing the fact that they were not viewed as people by the whites around them, but for one thing, that view was not universal, and for another, it made the book difficult to read. I never realized how dependent we are on those little marks, but they make the difference between a flowing read and a halting, stammering one.
This is by far the best work of fiction I have received from LT's ER program. I enjoyed this book immensely. I found it reminiscent of both Cold Mountain and March. I did find myself questioning the likelihood of some of the freedom of movement enjoyed by Cassius. Having read Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs though, I do realize that it was common for slave-owners to treat certain slaves differently than they treated others. I would recommend this work to most of my reading friends and family. I think it would make a very good choice for any book discussion group.
This was a surprisingly original and interesting novel about the last days of the Civil War (emancipation is announced in the final pages) as viewed by an exceptionally intelligent, sensitive, interesting slave named Cassius. Cassius is one of the most interesting protagonists I have encountered in some fictional time. His reflections on the war, the South, ownership of humans and humans as trade are what drive this book, but there is a "murder mystery" element of sorts as well. Also, it is a love story. Fuller did an excellent job in this territory, clearly, it was well researched. But all the research in the world doesn't necessarily mean a good story ... but this novel has a good story as well, great characters, both white and black. The only reason I did not give it 5 stars is that the dialogue, while seemingly accurate-sounding, is very choppy and confusing with the quotes (for white people), not for slaves. So when two slaves are talking, for instance, I had to keep going back to figure out who was saying what. That took away from the movement of the novel. But overall, it is incredibly strong, a wonderful transporting read and highly recommended.
I have always enjoyed reading about the Civil War and the American South so I was thrilled to receive an advanced reader's copy of "Sweetsmoke" by David Fuller. Some of my favorite books (both fiction and non-fiction) have been set in this period of American history so I really looked forward to reading it.To my surprise, I found this novel disappointing. I did not find either the story or the main character Cassius believable. Although I know some slaves could read and write, Cassius' mastery of the English language seemed unreal. Not only did he learn to read in a few weeks time but he could read and understand works like the Odyssey and the Iliad. As a teacher of adult learners, I know how difficult (if not impossible) this would be. Every time he spoke I cringed because his use of the English language seemed so contrived. I found myself re-reading passages and wondering...could a slave in 1862 Virginia really speak like this? It actually ruined the book for me. I focused so much on the language that I never really got into the story.I know this novel has been favorably reviewed by others, but I find that I am unable to recommend it.
It¿s July 1862, the confederacy is winning the Civil War carnage, when Cassius, a slave on a Virginia tobacco farm, learns about the murder of a freed black woman who was important to him. Despite the obvious obstacles from being a slave, Cassius commits himself to finding a way to investigate and avenge her murder. Upon discovering Cassius is going to try to do this, one character remarks ¿You have had occasion to take note of your reflection, in a looking glass or perhaps a puddle?¿¿¿Then perhaps you are aware your skin is black, that you are only counted as three-fifths of a man, that you are a slave owned and controlled by your master?¿ Cassius is in a unique position in the dark world of slavery. He is very intelligent and talented and his gifts are appreciated by his master. He has been allowed to leave the fields and become an expert carpenter and even make his own money. He has mixed feelings toward his master - a strange sort of admiration mixed with a seething and deep hatred. He also has a complex relationship with his fellow slaves. The slave field hands are exhausting themselves trying to save the tobacco crop from an attack by the hornworm. Yet, early in the book Cassius comes across a hornworm, picks it up, admires it, and lets it go. He¿s an outsider, and angry man gone cold hearted and a defeated soul. The murder of Emolie Jolie touches something in him. Jolie saved Cassius at his worst moment, protecting him from his master¿s wrath, allowing him to heal both physically and mentally. She also taught him to read and helped reshape his mind giving him a new beginning. Cassius¿s decision to do the impossible and find her murdered gives his life a purpose, another new beginning of sorts.This story is, at its heart, about capturing an unusual personality in an oppresive situation; one who revives himself by choosing an almost impossible task. It¿s also about history. Fuller used some 8 years of research towards recreating civil war era Virginia and capturing the slave experience from a variety of angles. Cassius is a wonderful guide, he is an outsider and acute observer who fits into many camps; and Fuller makes full use of him to bring out the color of all the characters. A very rich and rewarding story emerges. In many places this book is quite profound, perhaps nowhere more so then when we watch a slave auction through Cassius¿s eyes.It¿s also a murder mystery. The mystery itself is hardly the main goal of the book, and its conclusion is always, at most, of a secondary interest. But, it structures the book and it¿s a plot driving devise. I¿m a little mixed on this aspect. I¿m OK with crazy-nearly-impossible-all-too-convenient things happening in a murder mystery. But, that kind of excitement is not the purpose of this book. I found it a little distracting. Did a deeper meaning get lost in the investigation excitement? I¿m not sure, and I¿m not sure how much weight to put on the question. But I was left with the feeling of something missing here. A couple years ago I read ¿The Known World¿ by Edward P. Jones, another book on the last years of slavery in Virginia. Jones book has an infuriatingly difficult first hundred pages, but in the end really struck me with it¿s raw power. Fuller¿s rich research-based world doesn't have that same power. Maybe I¿m over-critical. This is a well-written book with colorful characters. And it¿s a complete success at bringing this world to life. It's well worth the read, and it¿s certainly fun.
Sweetsmoke is an evocative title. It draws in the senses and sets a mood. The novel does the same. It draws us into the life of Cassius, a slave on the Sweetsmoke plantation during the Civil War, and gives us a sense of the sights, sounds, and smells of that life. Even more importantly, though, it imparts, more effectively than any book that I've read, what it means to be a slave, what it means to be an intelligent adult treated as a child or property. I love historical fiction and this book has all of the elements of great historical fiction. The main character is compelling and many of the others are multi-dimensional. There is a clear sense of place and a wonderful integration of the historical events taking place at that time. David Fuller spent years researching this book, and it shows. The historical details are right . The writing is skillful and descriptive. Several times while I was reading the book I had the thought that it would make a wonderful movie, and I think that that was due--at least in part--to the fact that Fuller brought his skills as a screenwriter to the writing of this book.
I was disappointed. There were times that the story had very poignant, sad parts but between them the rest was not that interesting or captivating. I loved AThe Widow of the South and the March so perhaps my expectations were that the book would be on that level.
Sweetsmoke is the compelling story of Cassius, a slave living on a Virginia plantation. The novel begins with the violent death of Cassius' friend, Emoline Justice, a freed slave. Emoline has played an important role in Cassius' life, and when no one seems concerned with bringing the killer of a freed slave to justice, Cassius launches his own investigation into her death. Along the way, he must navigate the system of white power and find creative ways to buy himself time and independence to find answers to what happened to Emoline. Cassius is highly intelligent and in his mind he constantly challenges the slave owners' teachings that slavery is natural and slaves should obey their master. As his investigation continues his own inward rebellion against the injustice of slavery crescendos. At times there seemed to be a few too many easy coincidences that allowed Cassius to move around much more easily than many slaves would have been able to, but the author was able to keep the story from becoming unrealistic. The end result is a beautiful story of the impact of a brutal system on one human being, an unflinching look into what it meant to be a slave, and the ways in which people are able to remain unbroken in the worst of circumstances. The well-researched historical component to the novel adds further depth and interest to Cassius' story.