Hell at the Breech

( 17 )

Overview

In 1897, an aspiring politician is mysteriously murdered in the rural area of Alabama known as Mitcham Beat. His outraged friends -- —mostly poor cotton farmers -- form a secret society, Hell-at-the-Breech, to punish the townspeople they believe responsible. The hooded members wage a bloody year-long campaign of terror that culminates in a massacre where the innocent suffer alongside the guilty. Caught in the maelstrom of the Mitcham war are four people: the aging sheriff sympathetic to both sides; the widowed ...

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Overview

In 1897, an aspiring politician is mysteriously murdered in the rural area of Alabama known as Mitcham Beat. His outraged friends -- —mostly poor cotton farmers -- form a secret society, Hell-at-the-Breech, to punish the townspeople they believe responsible. The hooded members wage a bloody year-long campaign of terror that culminates in a massacre where the innocent suffer alongside the guilty. Caught in the maelstrom of the Mitcham war are four people: the aging sheriff sympathetic to both sides; the widowed midwife who delivered nearly every member of Hell-at-the-Breech; a ruthless detective who wages his own war against the gang; and a young store clerk who harbors a terrible secret.

Based on incidents that occurred a few miles from the author's childhood home, Hell at the Breech chronicles the events of dark days that led the people involved to discover their capacity for good, evil, or for both.

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Editorial Reviews

USA Today
In Hell at the Breech, Franklin has cleverly woven history and fiction, using detail as a tool to shape his plot. He also makes his characters rise up from the pages as if they were there with you.

Along with breathtaking descriptions of Mitcham Beat's scenery (you can practically feel the cotton buds beneath your fingertips and smell the pine in the air), Franklin does what Harper Lee did in To Kill a Mockingbird; He lets his set of quirky characters run the story while he focuses on the repercussions of his characters' curiosity and age.

Hell at the Breech is an impressive novel that should catapult Franklin into the big leagues. — Nickolas Thomas

The Washington Post
Franklin's pungent rendering of place and character, his perfect selection of the convincing detail, is what makes his work so compelling. He knows the grit, detritus and psychology of life in the rural world, is utterly convincing in his renditions of violence, yet responds to nature with a near poetry of appreciation. In this powerful novel Franklin shows that though he has learned well from splendid sources he has become something of his own, and Hell at the Breech is the proof. — Daniel Woodrell
Publishers Weekly
This immensely accomplished novel by the author of the Edgar Award-winning short story collection Poachers is based on a real-life feud in the 1890s that pitted the underclass-poor, mostly white sharecroppers-of Clarke County, Ala., against the land-owning gentry who could and did control their fate. But that simple summary does not do justice to the complex and incredibly violent events that shook the community. The seeds of the violent uprising are planted when Macky Burke, a poor, white teenage orphan living with his grandmother, the widow Gates, accidentally shoots local merchant Arch Bedsole during a holdup. Arch's enraged cousin, Quincy "Tooch" Bedsole, a down-at-the-heels farmer, cultivates those seeds with a mixture of resentment, greed and a desire for vengeance. He forms the "Hell-at-the-Breech" gang, made up of criminals and struggling white tenant farmers who but for their guns are nearly as powerless as the former slaves they compete with for work. Hell-at-the-Breech terrorizes Clarke County, exacting frontier justice (and cash) from the exploitative landowners, driving black sharecroppers out of the county and menacing the white farmers who are too law-abiding to join their ranks. Fighting the outbreak of violence is Sheriff Billy Waite, an essentially good man trying to keep the peace and administer justice in a lawless world. Despite an unremitting catalogue of violence, this gory book is a pleasure to read for its clean, unexpected turns of phrase (in a cotton field, "each tuft [is] white as a senator's eyebrow"); the laconic humor of its characters ("Rumors fly out of Mitcham Beat like hair in a catfight"); and vibrant, complex characters who spring from the pages. Franklin may have used history as a starting point, but he imagines the events in human terms, creating a book that transmutes historical fact into something much more powerful, dramatic and compelling. (May) Forecast: Poachers was a widely acclaimed collection, but Franklin's first novel is a breakout work. With Cold Mountain-like period appeal, fast-paced plotting, and Morrow's muscle behind it-Franklin will embark on an 11-city author tour-the book has sleeper hit potential. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
When a storekeeper campaigning for the state legislature is assassinated, Mitcham Beat is swept by a wave of violence that includes lynchings and shootings, barn burnings, and robberies. A gang of hooded men known as the Hell-at-the-Breech gang is terrorizing the community, and the only man to stop them is an aging sheriff ready to retire with his whiskey bottle. It sounds like the wild, wild West, but Franklin, whose short story "Poachers" won an Edgar Award, has taken a little-known event in Alabama history, the Mitcham Beat War, and transformed it into a Faulknerian tale of bloody revenge and vigilante justice. In 1897, rural Clarke County is a society divided between impoverished, mostly white tenant farmers and the middle-class townspeople and merchants who exploit them. After Arch Bedsole, their candidate, is ambushed, the farmers, led by Arch's cousin Tooch, decide to mete out rough justice. Watching this is Sheriff Billy Waite and 16-year-old Mack Burke, who works in Tooch's store and whose brother has joined the gang. Franklin's dark and gritty first novel is not for the faint of heart; the brutal violence visited upon humans (and animals) is gory and feral, very much like the films of Sam Peckinpah. And women don't have much of a place in this world except as whores or as wives. For larger Southern fiction collections.-Wilda Williams, "Library Journal" Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Nightriders seize control of a dark corner of Alabama in a history-based first novel. Clean, unpretentious language laid down in masterly fashion propels Franklin’s (stories: Poachers, 1999) reconstruction of impoverished tenant farmers taking the law, or lack thereof, into their own hands at the end of the 19th century. Their territory is Mitcham Beat, a forlorn section of Clarke county that Sheriff Billy Waite would be just as happy to leave to its own dark management or turn over to his successor in a couple of years when he retires. The few middle-class families that own the cotton farms in Mitcham Beat treat their tenant farmers as ruthlessly as the worst slaveholders in the not-so-remote Old South ever did, and the badly squeezed farmers haven’t a hope of escape from their lives. But Sheriff Waite can no longer ignore the situation in this territory laying the other side of a dense, snake-ridden forest from the more civilized part of the county. Desperate farmers have allied themselves with plain old criminals to form the Hell-at-the-Breech gang, an alliance that will run the few remaining black families out of the area, murder the farmers who openly oppose the gang, and render the overlords impotent. Watching the worst of the action from the front row is 16-year-old Mack Burke, an orphan raised with his older brother William by Widow Gates, the county midwife. Mack and William accidentally set the gang on its murderous path when their bungled midnight holdup of one of the few decent souls in Mitcham Beat led to his death and thence to Mack’s unpaid indenture to Tooch Bedsole, the gang’s mastermind. Goaded by his self-righteous cousin Oscar, the county judge, Sheriff Waite ridesreluctantly through the forest to sort things out. Historical fiction as smooth and relentless as the darkest Elmore Leonard. First-rate. Agent: Nat Sobel/Sobel Weber Associates
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060566760
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 12/16/2003
  • Series: Harper Perennial
  • Edition description: First Perennial Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 322,969
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.82 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Franklin

Tom Franklin is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which was nominated for nine awards and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the prestigious Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award. His previous works include Poachers, whose title story won the Edgar Award, as well as Hell at the Breech and Smonk. The winner of a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, he teaches in the University of Mississippi's MFA program.

Beth Ann Fennelly has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and United States Artists, as well as a Fulbright grant to travel to Brazil. Her honors include the Kenyon Review Prize and three inclusions in The Best American Poetry. She has published three volumes of poetry as well as a work of nonfiction, Great with Child. She directs the University of Mississippi's MFA program, where she was named the 2011 Outstanding Teacher of the Year.

Beth Ann and Tom live in Oxford, Mississippi, with their three children.

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First Chapter

Hell at the Breech
A Novel

Chapter One

Dawn crept up out of the trees, defining a bole, a burl, a leaf at a time the world he'd spent the night trying to comprehend. But what would daylight offer except the illusion of understanding? At least in darkness you were spared the pretending. Behind him in the cabin where he and William had lived since the death of their parents came the morning stirring of the Widow Gates, the clatter of logs as she arranged them in a tepee in the fireplace. He should have gone and done that for her.

Her soft, clucking voice reached his ears.

Was she talking to herself? No, to the dog who'd had her puppies the evening before. Ever the midwife, the widow had aided the dog as she'd delivered, with a wet rag cleaning the pups so the bitch would be free to push and whine, the old woman stolidly taking the halfhearted nip from the dog, who was confused by the pain. He turned his head to better hear, to learn what she might confide to the dog, but her voice was too soft.

Get up and go on in there, he thought, help her get breakfast made. Act like nothing's wrong.

But he didn't. He continued to sit with his feet on the steps as the earth redefined itself around him, same as it had the day before and the day before that and as far back as his memory went, as if this dawn were no different from any other. The ground shifted and twitched with early sparrows; he studied them on their twig legs, invisible in the leaves until they moved. He remembered walking home from the meeting at the store earlier, his face to the sky, searching between branches for the white globe of the moon. How unlike itself the world seemed at night, when trees lurked dark and hulking and the birds of the day disappeared who knew where.

His head had begun to ache. He leaned forward and cupped his palms over his ears and closed his eyes, elbows on knees. He was in that position when her legs appeared beside him.

"Macky."

He turned and looked at her ankles through the bars of his fingers. "I couldn't sleep."

"Where's William?"

"I don't know."

"Still over at the store, I reckon."

She set a croaker sack on the porch by her feet. The bag was moving. From inside, behind the closed door, there came a scratching. A whine.

"How long you been up?" she asked.

He couldn't stop watching the bag. "I don't know."

"You don't know."

"That's what I said, Granny."

Her quick hand knocked his hat off. He left it where it lay.

"You'll not snap at me, boy, not after -- "

"I'm sorry." His cheeks had grown hot, she had never hit him.

She reached for his head again, gently this time, but he rose and moved off and stood on the bottom step, facing away from her, gazing out at the just-born yard that lay stretched and steaming before them. The trees were nothing more than trees now and the sparrows just sparrows.

"How many did she have?" he asked.

"Six that lived. The runt died."

She stood holding the sack, then raised it for him. He took it from her; he could feel them moving, hear them crying.

"Drowning's quickest," she said.

"I know."

He heard the widow scraping back across the porch with her cane and heard the door close. Frantic toenails of the dog clicking on the floorboards. As he walked away she began to bark. He went faster, having forgotten his hat, holding the bag out from his side and trying not to feel them or hear them.

At the creek he knelt on the big shale rock where he and William fished. Leaves floated past in the water. It was a deep creek, good for diving and swimming except for the moccasins and snapping turtles. Once they'd caught an alligator snapper the size of a saddle, had lugged it in thinking they'd hooked a log. Then it was sitting on the bank gaping at them, a rock come to life, its shell bony and jagged and mossy green, its head as big as a man's fist. It kept turning its snout side to side with its mouth open and trying to back up, its tongue a black wormy blob. They couldn't afford to lose their hook, but retrieving it seemed impossible with the turtle alive. After some discussion they'd overturned it and, with great care, cut its throat,dragged it far from the water and left it lying on its back. Next day they'd returned to find it somehow still alive, its horned feet kicking feebly at the sky, mouth working open and closed.

The bag lay pulsing. He put a hand over it and defined beneath the cloth a trembling body no larger than a field mouse, legs, tail, head -- eyes that would still be closed, mouth seeking the warm purple teats of its mother. This dog had given birth four times in her life, and until now the old woman herself had done this deed, at first telling the boys she was giving the puppies to a colored family, until the morning they'd followed her to the creek and seen the truth. She'd explained then that while they could afford to feed one dog for the purposes it served, her litters were too much.

He looked into the creek. Another Mack Burke watched him from the water and they locked eyes and rolled up opposite sleeves and gathered the mouths of their sacks in their fists. He looked away from his reflection and submerged the bag, then loosened his grip so that cold water rushed in ...

Hell at the Breech
A Novel
. Copyright © by Tom Franklin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Introduction

In 1897, in the rural southwestern area of Alabama known as Mitcham Beat, an aspiring politician is mysteriously murdered. Seeking retribution, outraged locals -- mostly poor cotton farmers -- form a secret society, Hell-at-the-Breech, that begins with the intent to punish the people they believe are responsible but swells into a violent, primitive lust for power. The hooded members of this gang wage a bloody year-long campaign of terror that culminates in a massacre, where the innocent suffer alongside the guilty.

Caught in the maelstrom of the Mitcham War are four people: the county's aging sheriff; the widowed midwife who delivered nearly every member of Hell-at-the-Breech; a ruthless detective who wages his own private war; and a young store clerk harboring a terrible secret. Based on incidents that occurred a few miles from the author's childhood home, Hell at the Breech chronicles the dark events that lead the people involved to discover their capacity for good, for evil, or for both.

Discussion Questions

  1. What role, if any, does race play in this story? Discuss the characters' attitudes toward African-Americans. Were there many differences in power between the white tenant farmers and the former slave farmers? The gang choose to wear white hoods, the traditional gear of the Ku Klux Klan. Why?

  2. Should we allow the crimes of youth be used to judge adults? What if the crimes are classic symptoms of serial killers, such as the torture of small animals or setting fires -- should this information be kept secret? Do you think people who were underage offenders are more or less likely to commit crimes as adults?

  3. Would you qualify the gang's murderers as serial killers? Why? If serial killers usually work alone, can they be a part of a gang? Which of the characters in Hell at the Breech might qualify as a serial killer? How are the gang wars of today the same or different as the one described here?

  4. Was Mack guilty of murder in the sheriff's eyes? Was he responsible for any of the events that followed Arch Bedsole's death?

  5. Did Mack have a choice about joining the gang? Does his passivity make him as guilty as the other members of the gang?

  6. During the final showdown between the sheriff and the gang members, Mack ultimately sides with the gang members. Why? Can he redeem himself? How is Mack different from his brother William? How are they the same? What does the puppy drowning and the brothers' reactions to it reveal about them?

  7. Several characters display a harshness that is unacceptable by today's standards -- for example, Floyd Norris's three ragamuffin sons who torture the dying Ardy Grant out of curiosity. Was this kind of detached cruelty necessary for survival? Are there examples of the opposite approach -- kindness and empathy leading to survival?

  8. Sheriff Billy Waite sticks with his convictions and beliefs; this ultimately prevails. Yet, he reluctantly resorts to vigilante justice and admits that sometimes it is necessary. Do you agree that vigilantism is a necessity at times, even today?

  9. Did you suspect the widow's role in the gang? Is it plausible that a man like Tooch would listen to an old midwife? Do you think women's roles in major events have often been like the widow's -- hidden but also integral?

  10. In the end, the widow no longer loves Mack or William, though it was for them that she put these events in motion. Do mothers ever truly stop loving their children? Does the widow regret her actions?

About the Author

Tom Franklin, from Dickinson, Alabama, is the author of the collection of stories titled Poachers, which was named as a Best First Book of Fiction by Esquire in 1999 and was also the winner of a 1999 Edgar Award for the title story. Recipient of a 2001 Guggenheim Fellowship, he has held the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in-Residency at Ole Miss and the Tennessee Williams Fellowship at Sewanee. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, poet Beth Ann Fennelly, and their young daughter, Claire.

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Customer Reviews

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( 17 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2003

    Very impressed

    As a resident of south Alabama who is familiar with the setting and historical basis of this novel, I give Hell at the Breech two thumbs up. Franklin paints a vivid and heart-wrenching picture of the people, the land, and the emotions that contributed to a disturbing time in our county's history. I highly recommend this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2003

    Great book

    Blending gorgeous prose and dialect that is eerily close to home for most Southerners, Hell at the Breech is at once relentless and sensitive. In a sense, it is not unlike Faulkner¿s The Unvanquished in demonstrating the dangers of justice and vengeance and pointing to the fine line that exists between the two. A wonderful read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 7, 2012

    Good read

    This book turned out way better than i expected it to be.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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