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Posted December 6, 2009
All Smoke and No Fire
Books are a way to experience a life through another person's eyes. The viewpoint most Civil War novels offer is from a Johnny Reb, Billy Yank, or sometimes a rich plantation owner's daughter. David Fuller's novel Sweetsmoke, gives you a perspective way out of the norm. Through Sweetsmoke, the readers get to see the horrors and pains of the Civil War era not found on the battlefield. They get a chance to experience the daily life of a slave on a Virginian tobacco plantation. If that sounds a little dull, throw in the drama of an unsolved murder, forbidden romance, and runaway slaves, then you might have an idea of what Sweetsmoke could offer.
The whole novel is set around a slave with a tortured soul and a chip on his shoulder, Cassius. The issue with the character development of Cassius is that Fuller casts a main character that is slightly unlikeable. Although his indigence and tenacity are endearing, I found myself fed up with the single-mindedness and vengefulness of Sweetsmoke's hero. It seemed that while Cassius was chasing the murder of his one true friend and savior, all other plot was tossed to the wayside. There simply wasn't enough plot development or suspense. All subplots seem rushed and left unsatisfactorily dangling. Romances were torn to pieces in one paragraph, while the prolonged hunt lingered on for chapters.
One aspect of this novel that was extraordinary was the unconventional viewpoint discussed in the introduction. I found it so interesting to gain insight into the life of an enslaved carpenter on a thriving southern plantation. It made me look at previous Civil War novels I have read in an unorthodox manner. What if Prissy had narrated Gone With the Wind instead of the infamous Scarlet O'Hara? I especially enjoyed when Cassius was complaining about the hospitality of conductors on the underground railroad. It made him extremely uncomfortable to think about a white man having to empty out his chamber pot instead of visa versa. I was flabbergasted with the idea that a man doesn't deserve or want to live free because of the color of his skin. Sweetsmoke shows the readers that that idea is exactly what slavery preserved.
An aspect that I didn't enjoy was the fact that so many characters were presented that I found them easily jumbled. It seemed like a character that was a mere bystander in a scene before came back to hold an important piece in the murder puzzle. Even though that usually makes for a shock effect in novels. It left me turning pages searching for exactly who this man was. It appeared to me that Fuller bit off a smidgen more than he could chew in the character department. Never create more characters than you can bring to life for the readers.
On the whole, I think I enjoyed Sweetsmoke. I say, "I think" because I still am not sure if the stimulating point of view I gained from reading David Fuller's novel was worth slogging through 300 pages of sub-par plot and character development. Do pick up this book if you are a history buff or the intricacies of plantation life are captivating to you. I can't say don't bother to read it if you are a lover of suspense and action, because Sweetsmoke tries to offer that too, the climax just falls short of the climb. So when you pick up this book, be forewarned. Sweetsmoke will give you a new point of view necessary to this day and age, but not a soap opera.
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Posted November 1, 2008
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