Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Book review and commentary: The Blood of Heaven, by Kent Wascom

Fueled by whiskey, vengeance, warped religiosity, and wild revolutionary zeal, a golden-haired ruffian and his two adopted brothers aim to fight their way to nation-building glory.  Wascom’s language, gorgeous, expressive, and raw, flawlessly matches his vision of the unruly southern frontier before it latched onto the United States.

The son of a Baptist preacher from Upper Louisiana, Angel Woolsack inherits his father’s biblical eloquence and violent tendencies and not only wields them with equal dexterity but liberally intertwines them. From Mississippi River flatboats to a Natchez whorehouse, his picaresque travels shape his mindset and introduce him to Samuel and Reuben Kemper, his partners in crime. His wife, Red Kate, a young woman carved from the same mold, is a similarly powerful presence.

For Angel, the West Florida territory, nominally ruled by the Spanish, is an opportunity to be grabbed, as are Aaron Burr’s dreams of forming an independent country. Seeing early nineteenth-century America through the eyes of an ambitious, trigger-happy renegade makes for an exhilarating yet brutal ride. Wascom imbues this underexplored era with visceral authenticity.

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Kent Wascom's The Blood of Heaven was published today by Grove in hardcover at $25 (432pp).  I read it back in early March, and the review above was published in Booklist's annual historical fiction issue on April 15th. As I had just 175 words to work with (and I always make use of every single one), here are some more personal comments:

(1) If I were to divide books into two categories, the first being "my usual type of book" and the second being everything else, this one would fall into the latter group.  This is fine, and this is also why I like reviewing... it drags me out of my comfort zone.

(2) Every review copy comes with endorsements from other writers that trumpet its praises, we know that, but this one arrived with the most jaw-droppingly extraordinary blurbs I've read.  I found myself reading them over and over in fascination, mostly for the imagery they created.  Go ahead, take a look for yourself.

(3) Samuel and Reuben Kemper were real people; I hadn't heard of them before and am unlikely to forget them now.

(4) This is a novel I greatly admired for many reasons, but whether I enjoyed it is a more difficult question to answer.  In parts, I did; the language, for instance, and how perfectly it matched the main character, setting, and tone. (And this isn't something I especially look for, myself, but if you're one of those who reads novels in order to find friends... well, keep looking.)  The level of violence didn't appeal to me personally, but those who like their frontier fiction served authentically bloody and grim should grab this book immediately.

9 comments:

  1. Wow! Hard to credit those comments! Thanks for the link. I've been seeing this book everywhere. Love the title. Sounds like what's inside those blood red covers is pretty wild and fresh.

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    1. Yes, that's a good description... the cover's a good indicator for what's inside!

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  2. We are concluding our 16 day adventure down the southern Atlantic coast (prelude to the final push on the book due on the subject in October. We've gone from MD, including Alexandria, to the Mother of Slavery (Monticello again, Richmond and many points in VA, to the end point of St. Augustine (we didn't continue to the actual end point, New Orleans, the largest slave mart of all, but we know NO intimately, having lived there and published two books about it). We've been sure to put boots on the ground of every significant slave trading center and slave breeding center and very much in-between, but all related. So all this was the historical districts and sites, because that's what they did. Slaves were as much a principal product and export as the tobacco, indigo, rice and cotton they grew.

    But as happens so often, when plunging this intensely into our national history I wonder again and again why historical fiction isn't taking advantage of these brilliant, vivid, colorful, adventurous figures and events?

    So here is someone who has!

    Love, c.

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    1. That sounds like quite an educational and eye-opening trip.

      The slave trade is covered in this novel, of course, although it's not the focal point. I'd never heard anything about the Republic of West Florida or the West Florida Rebellion before reading it, and don't know of any other works of historical fiction covering this colorful era, either.

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  3. Well, I did / do!

    New Orleans and Cuba and all, and all that.

    It was even more fantastic to see St. Augustine at the end point -- which, with the Spanish and Cuba -- the Cuban obsession, which has always failed -- and the Floridas obession of the colonial and then the young USA -- Thank You, King Andy Jackson. Or as a retired naval officer with us today put it, when in passing I'm going, "At least St. Augustine avoided the fire of Andy Jackson coz he never got here." The retired officer in return goes, "Thank heavens. He'd have hung everyone and then cut them into little pieces." Let us take the moment to add that this officer did NOT say this in admiration for Jackson ....

    One of the joys of this kind of history tourism is the unexpected allies you meet along the way! :)

    Love, C.

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  4. I have this novel now, and read a chapter before bed last night. Holy cow -- this really is all Our Stuff! The energy this novelist displays in his writing is astounding. And he doesn't let up. Woo. This is one gentleman who is filled with rage by our past. I'm deeply impressed.

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    1. Hi C, you'll likely find (as I did) that the energy and vigor in his writing last all the way through.

      I missed seeing your earlier reply. I've been to St. Augustine a few times though all the "history tourism" sites I remember seeing were from much earlier (the Castillo and environs; I don't recall the guides speaking of its 18th-19th c history, prominent though it was). I'll have to go back.

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  5. Our docent, a member of a family established in St. Augustine since the 17th century explained this -- if you hadn't guessed already.

    Until tourism became huge in the decades most of St. Augustine spoke Spanish either exclusively or primarily. Even "twenty or thirty years ago," he said, "this was true. Certainly it was true in my family. But now even my family everybody speaks almost only English."

    As for Miami and Spanish speakers there: Miami is not Spanish, and what they speak is not Spanish either -- they are Cuban and they speak something no honest Spaniard would have come out of his mouth. Which was embarrassing as both of us gained our Spanish speaking fluency in Havana, and every Spanish speaker from Spain to Puerto Rico to Peru to the Philippines can tell that is where we got fluent.

    St. Augustine was a backwater for a long time! Which is why it took us so long to get it in our radar too, I suppose. I recall a few years ago while still in Maryland when I ran across shipments of slaves out of the Eastern Shore headed for the market in St. Augustine!!!! It was the first I understood it was a market too. So that, along with it as a destination for marronage by slaves runaway from the Carolinas and Georgia, made it as important a key to the thesis of our book as it is.

    Love, C.

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    1. I hadn't known when St. Augustine became a tourist destination, but it did seem to be pretty recent, relatively speaking. Just looking at when many of the museums were founded. It was about 10 years ago I first visited (sister-in-law lives in Orlando). It's lovely around Christmastime.

      The fact that there was a slave market there was new to me, too.

      How are you liking the book?

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