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Hell at the Breech: A Novel

Hell at the Breech: A Novel

4.0 17
by Tom Franklin

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

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
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

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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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.


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.

Meet the Author

Tom Franklin is the New York Times bestselling author of Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and the Crime Writers' Association's Gold Dagger Award. His previous works include Poachers, Hell at the Breech, and Smonk. He teaches in the University of Mississippi's MFA program.

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Hell at the Breech 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 17 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book turned out way better than i expected it to be.
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