Thursday, May 31, 2018

Kevin Powers' A Shout in the Ruins, a literary novel of the Civil War and its long aftermath

Some passages in Powers’ second novel (after The Yellow Birds) unfold with a fable’s tragic inevitability, while its specificity of setting and character, both strikingly described and original, will brand them into the reader’s consciousness. In his depiction of America’s heritage of racial trauma, he takes the long view, moving between Civil War–era Virginia and 120-plus years later.

Mystery surrounds the fate of Emily Reid Levallois, mistress of the Beauvais Plantation, near Richmond, after a devastating 1866 fire. Scenes detail her unhappy circumstances: due to terrible battlefield injuries, her father is unable to prevent his covetous, cruel neighbor, Antony Levallois, from wedding Emily. An enslaved couple, Rawls and Nurse, are brought together and torn apart amid this atmosphere.

In a linked tale beginning in 1956, George Seldom, a ninety-something African American, travels through the segregated South to his onetime North Carolina home while pondering the unknown circumstances that ensured his childhood survival. Beautifully formed sentences express unsettling truths about humanity, yet tendrils of hope emerge via stories showing how love and kindness can take root in seemingly barren earth.

A Shout in the Ruins was published in May by Little, Brown; I wrote this review for Booklist's 4/15 issue. This is one among a number of recent books I was assigned on the topic of the Civil War and race relations, which seems to be a current trend in historical fiction.

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