Thursday, May 03, 2012

Book review: Slant of Light, by Steve Wiegenstein

So much about Steve Wiegenstein's excellent debut novel calls to mind its mid-19th century setting: the deftly incorporated historical backdrop, the sensibilities of its characters, the rich authentic language, and even the book design, in which fonts, color, and images work together to enhance the overall package.

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.


  1. Well, i HAVE to read it now. What a beautiful book.. I can see on the outside, and sounds it on the inside. I can already feel myself getting lost in it. In a good way. :)

  2. I've been on a roll with good novels lately and hope it continues. This one was a very pleasant surprise - new author, new company, so I went into it without any preconceived notions. It won me over quickly.

  3. I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I've been looking for something that rivaled Cold Mountain in my affections. This book is set in Missouri just before the civil war so there's that similarity in common. This author also has the same ability to authentically recreate the time period--clearly he's done a lot of research to convey historical accuracy. And, as with Cold Mountain, there's an array of colorful characters. Missouri at that time was a mish-mash of rebels, nationals,opportunists, and mercenaries that made it really hard to know who was friend and who was foe. This is where the title comes in--the way the light falls on things determines what we see. This is a metaphor that applies also to another spectrum in the book--that between idealism, pragmatism, and cynicism, and how we can determine when too much of one may cancel out the others.

  4. Great review. I hadn't thought of reading this book--hadn't heard of it--and you have evoked its strengths and sensibilities so strongly and specifically for me that I want to delve right in. What an ironic, brilliant choice of the writer to set a utopian society in the South just before the Civil War.

  5. Ceska - thanks for your comments. I saw your review on Amazon just after I'd posted mine. Having read through the publisher's website, I knew that Slant of Light wasn't the original title for the book, although I saw how the concept was worked periodically into the storyline. The lyrical quality of the writing resembles that of Cold Mountain, although that novel is set in North Carolina, isn't it? The other Civil War-era set in the Missouri Ozarks that comes to mind is Paulette Jiles' Enemy Women.

    Thanks, Judith! If you read it, let me know what you think. The author includes in his bio a note about having studied the Icarians... they were a group of Utopian believers that started out in 19th-c France and ended up in Illinois, Missouri, and Texas, among other places.

  6. Title from the Dickinson poem?

  7. Yes, it is! It's reproduced at the beginning.

  8. The utopian community (so easily transformed into the dystopian community) makes such a great subject for fiction. You have both the internal dynamic of those living within the community, often people motivated by religious/social/philosophical/political stances differing from the accepted norm of the day, and also the external dynamic of interaction with often suspicious neighbours in the outside world.

    I've just been reading Melissa Coleman's interesting and moving memoir "This Life is in your Hands", about life with her homesteading parents on the rural lands which belonged to the Nearings ("Living the Good Life" pioneers), and brought back the good old days for me.

    There was a strong back-to-the-and communal movement here in New Zealand during the 1970s and I lived in several communal situations myself, so I can tell you that while there are many pluses, wherever we go, whatever our dreams and ideals, we take human nature with us, for good and for bad, and that for many urban idealists, the sheer hard work required of a self-sufficient rural lifestyle is just too great shock to the system. Spend too much time sitting under a tree contemplating and you starve :)

  9. Thanks for the link to the review of the Coleman memoir, Annis. I hadn't come across it before. Your experience (and the Colemans') reflects what I saw in this book, although these characters did have a little time for contemplation - and some more earthy goings-on as well :)

  10. Ah, yes, those earthy goings-on! They inevitably lead to hurt feelings and jealousy which can be most awkward in a relatively claustrophobic situation. They are easily the most effective commune-killers out in my experience :)