The multifaceted plot centers on three individuals participating in a creative social experiment in the years before the Civil War. James Turner is a charismatic thinker and lecturer from the Illinois prairie who gained fame in writing Travels to Daybreak, a Utopian South-Seas adventure about communal living and the philosophy of democratic ideals.
Turner gets the chance to live out his literary creation when an admirer offers him some of his property — fertile bottomlands in remote southern Missouri — to establish his own Daybreak-style community. He can't resist accepting in gratitude, although he has concerns. "I never meant for people to take my ideas so seriously," he thinks to himself. His new bride, Charlotte, a young woman of intelligent common sense, rushes to join him there immediately. Accompanying her is Adam Cabot, a contemplative abolitionist who needs a place to lie low; his beliefs had almost got him lynched back in Kansas.
While Turner has no trouble attracting followers, problems soon arise, and Slant of Light takes readers step by step through the process as idealism meets up with hard reality. Daybreak's diverse residents aren't used to the backbreaking toil involved in planting crops and building homes, and they struggle over leadership issues (why should their Temple of Community get glass windows when their own cabins make do with oiled paper?). With Turner's attentions preoccupied, Charlotte finds a kindred spirit in Adam, whose personality meshes closely with hers. The original landowner's moonshiner son isn't excited about losing half his inheritance to a group of outsiders, either.
The breathtaking glory of nature they find at Daybreak is beautifully described and has a lovely calming effect. Still, even here on the edge of civilized America, the wider world predictably comes calling, which adds to the tension level. Plunking a peaceful haven down in a politically volatile slave state in 1857 may not have been the shrewdest move. Bushwhackers threaten violence if the colonists even hint at abolitionist tendencies. With civil war on the near horizon, people begin making individual decisions that threaten their neutrality and their togetherness.
Wiegenstein has a nice touch with dialogue, evoking the Turners' educated speech and the twangy drawl of the Ozark hillmen with equal skill. A thoroughly American story with more than regional appeal, Slant of Light is intellectually involving from the outset, and its flawed characters have a way of latching onto readers' emotions. Fans of quality historicals should enjoy seeing how the forces of history and human nature play out in this small corner of the nation.
Slant of Light was published by St. Louis-based Blank Slate Press in April at $14.95 (trade pb, 303pp). It's a local bestseller, and a real find - this is one of those small press gems that deserves wider attention. If a sequel's ever published, I'll be there. Find it on Goodreads.