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4.5 14
by David Fuller

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The year is 1862, and the Civil War rages through the South. On a Virginia tobacco plantation, another kind of battle soon begins. There, Cassius Howard, a skilled carpenter and slave, risks everything—punishment, sale to a cotton plantation, even his life—to learn the truth concerning the murder of Emoline, a freed black woman, a woman who secretly


The year is 1862, and the Civil War rages through the South. On a Virginia tobacco plantation, another kind of battle soon begins. There, Cassius Howard, a skilled carpenter and slave, risks everything—punishment, sale to a cotton plantation, even his life—to learn the truth concerning the murder of Emoline, a freed black woman, a woman who secretly taught him to read and once saved his life. It is clear that no one cares about her death in the midst of a brutal and hellish war. No one but Cassius, who braves horrific dangers to escape the plantation and avenge her loss. As Cassius seeks answers about Emoline's murder, he finds an unexpected friend and ally in Quashee, a new woman brought over from another plantation; and a formidable adversary in Hoke Howard, the master he has always obeyed. With subtlety and beauty, Sweetsmoke captures the daily indignities and harrowing losses suffered by slaves, the turmoil of a country waging countless wars within its own borders, and the lives of those people fighting for identity, for salvation, and for freedom.

Editorial Reviews

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In 1862, Cassius Howard toils on a tobacco plantation while the Civil War rages, consuming men in its wake. His skill and hard work have made him his master's favorite, but he's unwilling to test that goodwill -- at least not consciously. But when he discovers that a woman who once saved his life has been murdered, Cassius no longer has the stomach to sit quietly and watch the degradation of his people. Intent on hunting for the murderer, he finds a surprising ally in Quashee, a new field hand, and discovers feelings for this young woman he no longer thought himself capable of. This new affection, however, makes a fierce and formidable enemy of his master and threatens the search Cassius has only just begun.

Sweetsmoke is a magnetic, captivating, and meticulously researched debut novel. Fuller has crafted an unforgettable portrait of slavery and a country in turmoil, creating a drama of love and kinship and bringing to life an indelible character in Cassius Howard. (Holiday 2008 Selection)
Publishers Weekly

Mystery novels, ever in need of fresh points of view, are given to strange genre hybrids like Fuller's debut novel: part investigative procedural, part narrative of American slave life. Cassius, a secretly literate slave on a Civil War-era Virginia tobacco plantation, is determined to track down whoever killed his mentor and surrogate mother, Emoline Justice, a free black woman. Making liberal use of his limited freedoms, Cassius takes to the road, playing the obvious disadvantages of life under the yoke to his favor. Along the way, he encounters slave traders, Underground Railroad conspirators, Confederate soldiers, Northern spies and a wide assortment of African-Americans, slave and free. Fuller, a screenwriter, has palpable sympathy for his African-American characters, and Cassius's encounters with other characters-like the haunted slave owner Hoke Howard-are the book's strongest parts. Unfortunately, Fuller's solid plot doesn't carry the novel through to its end, and, despite sourcing the work of historians Eugene Genovese and John Hope Franklin, the novel gives off a distinct whiff of unreality. (Sept.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
The New York Times Book Review
Fuller works hard to give us a mid-19th century world that feels authentic, from small details . . . to the larger sprawl of the plantation . . . captivating.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The plot unfolds at a brisk pace, and Fuller does an especially good job with the battle scenes . . . Cassius, who has never drawn a single breath as a free man, is a compelling character from the start. Sweetsmoke is a well-imagined and researched novel of survival and courage.
Featuring slave traders, smugglers and spies, the novel transports us to a chilling milieu in which human beings are humiliated, and the slaves have a forlorn hope of freedom, decency and dignity . . . Sweetsmoke haunts us long after the final page is turned.
Kirkus Reviews
A debut novel of the Civil War, set on the Virginia tobacco plantation of Sweetsmoke during 1862. The narrative focuses on Cassius, "of lean and hungry look," and indeed named after the character in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Looked after by his master, Hoke Howard, Cassius is smart, shrewd and resentful. Besides Hoke, the dominant influence in his life has been Emoline Justice, an old black woman who during a traumatic time in Cassius's life had taught him to read and write-and who at the beginning of the novel has been brutally murdered. One conceivable motive is the fact that in addition to her role as a fortuneteller and an herbalist, Emoline has been serving as a Federal spy, and it's not clear who knows this secret part of her identity. While giving off the "sweetsmoke" flavor of life on a plantation, the novel also shares something with the whodunits of detective fiction, for Cassius is determined to find her murderer. One prime suspect is Solomon Whitacre, a weasly quartermaster in the Confederate Army. Another is Hoke, for his kindly exterior conceals a ruthless and pitiless interior. While Cassius is offered numerous opportunities to escape, his strong desire to avenge Emoline's death keeps him close to home. Fuller gives us different perspectives on slavery and on the war-we learn about life on the plantation through the slaves themselves, through the privileged life of the owning families and through soldiers who fight not out of loyalty to the Confederacy but to escape dull marriages and the dreariness of domestic life. We also learn of inside maneuvering, of how slaves are pitted against each other to contend for relationships of relative power and prestige. Cassius iseventually caught up in the barbarity of Sharpsburg and finds a creative way to get his freedom-and to solve the mystery of Emoline's murder. While not always gripping, this novel from veteran screenwriter Fuller is well worth reading because of Cassius's sinuous and guileful complexity. Agent: Deborah Schneider/Gelfman Schneider
Pat Conroy
"Sweetsmoke is a fascinating and gripping novel about the Civil War. The slave, Cassius Howard, is a great fictional character, and his story is part mystery, part love story, and a harrowing portrait of slavery that reads with the immense power of the slave narratives. A tour de force for David Fuller."
Robert Hicks
"David Fuller vividly and movingly describes the life of Cassius, a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Sweetsmoke resonates with unforgettable characters and a gripping story of loss and survival."
Madison Smartt Bell
"With Sweetsmoke, David Fuller gives an extraordinarily nuanced, privileged, and convincing view of the world of slavery during the American Civil War, and of the hearts and minds of the men and women who had to live in that world."
From the Publisher
"Sweetsmoke is a fascinating and gripping novel about the Civil War. The slave, Cassius Howard, is a great fictional character, and his story is part mystery, part love story, and a harrowing portrait of slavery that reads with the immense power of the slave narratives. A tour de force for David Fuller."—Pat Conroy, author of Beach Music and South of Broad"

David Fuller vividly and movingly describes the life of Cassius, a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Sweetsmoke resonates with unforgettable characters and a gripping story of loss and survival."—Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South"

With Sweetsmoke, David Fuller gives an extraordinarily nuanced, privileged, and convincing view of the world of slavery during the American Civil War, and of the hearts and minds of the men and women who had to live in that world."—Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising and Toussaint Louverture

Product Details

Hachette Books
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.70(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
July 1, 1862

The big one closed his hand into a fist and took a step toward the smaller boy. He was tall and narrow, ten-years-old, and black; his joints bulged in rude knobs, his long bones had grown quickly and suddenly and the meat in between was strung taut like piano wire. A stiff muslin shirt, his only item of clothing, hung to the top of his thighs, barely covering his buttocks and the skin that stretched over his angular pelvic bones. Dust powdered his thin legs and turned his calves pale, and his bare feet left significant shapes in the dirt. The smaller one, the white one, should have been afraid. He wore a gingham shirt with soft trousers held up by suspenders and he had real shoes. But skin showed between shoe and cuff, and the trousers bagged at the knees, shiny there and thin.

Cassius had not noticed the worn material of the boy's trousers until that moment, and wondered if the condition of the white children's clothing was another casualty of the Confederate quartermasters. Then he wondered what the boy's grandmother thought about it.

The white one, grandson of the planter, stood his ground, hands open at his side; in that moment, Cassius remembered himself standing barefoot in the same yard, facing another white boy twenty years before, this one's father. On that day, Cassius had yet to understand that he was another man's property, and now the steam of humiliation flushed through him as if he was standing there again, reliving the past.

Cassius made no move. He had not witnessed the boyhood conflict that had brought on this moment, but he knew how it would end.

Andrew, the tall, black one, should also have known. He had older brothers in the field, and even if by their compassion they hesitated to warn him, he should have known he was alone and surrounded. None of the black children seemed to know, but the white children knew, and one of them ran to the kitchen for Mam Rosie.

Mam Rosie was out in an instant, humping down the steps, wiping her hands down her apron, an old woman lean as a rope twisted tight, coming on fast. Mam Rosie showed no fear, she was high yellow and had privileges, but she was also conscious of the precise limits of her power. She came fast but Cassius knew there was time -- the two boys were there in the dirt, the other children were near the wilting camellias by the big house porch steps and Nanny Catherine watched over her shoulder. No rush at all, thought Cassius, as his eyes drifted toward the work sheds behind the big house. The smoke house was there, and the sheds for carpentry, blacksmithing and shoe making. Then the barns and beyond them the shed for curing tobacco -- the old woman still running -- and Cassius's eyes slid to the low rise beyond which, out of sight, stood the Overseer's house and past that the quarters. Acres of fields rolled out in three directions where maturing tobacco grew tall. The children's gardening chores were done, the butter churn put away, and the air was soft with moisture and sunlight and insects sawing, plenty of time on most days, but not today, as Mam Rosie was quick but not quick enough, and Andrew swung. He opened his hand at the last second and slapped young Charles's ear.

Cassius closed his eyes at the sound. Every child, every adult, every creature in the yard paused, and the future came into Cassius's mind as clearly as he remembered his own past: Tomorrow Andrew would be obliged to work the fields with his brothers and parents. He would learn about it that night in the quarters, and his heart would be glad because with the news would arrive his first pair of trousers and his first hat and something that passed for shoes. His parents would see his gladness and their eyes would meet in resignation. Their son, their little one, the baby, already going to the fields, two years early. In the morning before sunup, Mr. Nettle would ring the bell rousing Andrew from his place on the pallet between mother and father, torn from sleep with trembling stomach, expected to consume a full meal by candlelight with the sun barely a rumor. He would never again sleep between them. He would eat little and regret it later. Walking in the dark to the fields, his new shoes would pinch and the lower legs of his trousers would cling, wet with dew and cold against his shins. They would assign him a row to pick hornworms off tobacco leaves, the hands working quickly, quickly to save the crop. He was to inspect each leaf top and bottom, plucking hornworms as they grasped with their sturdy legs and strong tiny jaws. The sun would step into the sky and dry his trousers and the heat would gradually increase, unnoticed until he moved, when he would discover his body reluctant, leaden. He would beg for a rest. His mother Savilla would shift in her row to grant him shade from her thick body as she continued to pluck hornworms, but then his mother, his mother, would guide his fingers back to the work. Eventually she would yield to his complaints and pour hornworms from her sack into his, hastily attacking his section to deceive Mr. Nettle the Overseer. But Big Gus the Driver would know and when he came by she would be forced back to her row. They would not beat him, though, not on his first day. In time, when exhaustion, blisters, soreness and sweat became routine, he would think back and remember that slap. Andrew would never return to play with the other children.

Mam Rosie cuffed Andrew on his ear, a loud and obvious blow that she hoped would satisfy the planter's grandson. Her gnarled fingers squeezed the back of Andrew's smooth dry neck and steered him aside. Mam Rosie pretended Charles was not there, but Cassius saw the boy's reddened ear and knew something would happen. He waited for Charles to order Mam Rosie to bind Andrew's wrists high to the ring on the whipping post, to order her to pull up Andrew's shirt and expose his back. Cassius knew Mam Rosie would do what she was told, whispering to calm Andrew as she secured him to the post while he twisted and bucked in outrage. He waited for Charles to tell Mam Rosie to run fetch the whip. Cassius saw meanness in Charles's face as he controlled his tears, and then Charles's eyes found Cassius's eyes and when Cassius did not look away, Charles saw that Cassius knew, and Charles would have to do something. It was of no consequence that he was ten-years-old. This was white man's pride.

"Cassius, you git along now and fetch me some water," said Charles.

I don't think I hear you, said Cassius aloud but not loud enough for Charles to hear.

"What's that you say? What's that?" said Charles.

Beautiful day, said Cassius, again too quietly to be heard.

Cassius gripped the heavy hammer in his right hand, nails in his left, and pressed his leg against the fence post where his knee and the top of his foot held the stave in place. A tan and gray feral cat, kitten in her mouth, sauntered into the shade under the big house porch. Sweat coated his skin and fat oily drops clung to his nose, eyebrows and chin. The air would not cool until long after dark. Mr. Nettle's wife came around the far corner returning from the privy, using her wide skirt to funnel her three small Nettles ahead of her, suddenly alerted by the tension, wondering what she had missed. A bantam rooster lurched with a high-step in the yard, one eye warily on the shadow where the cat had disappeared.

"I said git, boy," said Charles.

Cassius probed his own facial expression from within, finding it locked into a blank, uncomprehending stare, reaching back to know it had been just so at the moment Charles had met his eyes. But Cassius still did not look away. His mind remained trapped in the past, barefoot in his own stiff shirt, not yet knowing who he was or what would come of his defiance. Charles's eyes reflected uncertainty; he knew there should be no hesitation. The yard by the big house was unnaturally quiet. Cassius became aware of the song then, the ever-present song that rose out of the fields, brought louder up the hill by a shift in the wind. He did not notice that the smell came as well.

Cassius turned back to the fence stave and expertly angled a nail, bringing the hammer, driving it three-quarters home with one swing.

"I'll tell her, Cassius, I'll tell Grandma Ellen!" Charles said. He spit out Cassius's name and walked to the big house.

Mam Rosie stood with Andrew, looking at Cassius, a warning flashing in her eyes.

* * *

On the second floor, Ellen Howard read aloud to her servants a news story from a two-day old copy of the Richmond Daily Whig, reliving General Lee's victory at Gaines' Mill, the third battle fought in as many days. She read dramatically, expecting her servant, Pet, and her daughter's personal servants, Susan and Pearl, to be properly moved. The early months of the war had brought a constant stream of terrible news that had laid a pall over the Confederacy. The newspapers bemoaned the inevitability of the war's rapid conclusion in favor of the Union, and Ellen had been deeply traumatized. The culmination of the bitter news came with the fall of New Orleans in April, and her natural gloom settled into depression. But soon followed the campaign in Virginia, and a series of victories over Union General George McClellan's enormous army brought unexpected joy to the populace. Ellen Howard, however, was slow to trust good news, afraid to emerge from her comfortable cocoon of dread and ennui. Already feared as a thin-skinned and distant Mistress, she had grown unpredictable after the news of her oldest son John-Corey Howard's death at Manassas Junction during the first battle of the war. John-Corey had been named for her father, the late Judge Ezra John Corey, a man she had adored. Ellen's bitterness over her son's death grew when informed that the Yankees had ridden out from Washington, D.C. in their buggies with picnic lunches to enjoy the spectacle of their soldiers defeating the Johnny Rebs. She was little cheered to know they had been forced to flee in haste and terror when the South had answered the cocksure Yankees with blood. A number of John-Corey's belongings had arrived with a letter of condolence, his watch but not the winding key, his slouch hat and his precious collection of received letters, many of which were written in her hand.

She was not to view her son's remains. Perhaps because she could not picture him dead, a dreamy part of her was able to imagine the war as unreal, envisioning John-Corey alive on his own plantation outside Lynchburg, or here, in the big house, hiding as he had as a child. As long as she did not see his body, she could pretend that the war did not exist, certain that all this foolishness would soon be revealed as a test of character. On such days the house people would hear her humming, alone in a bedroom, through an open door down a long hallway, and they would look at one another and disguise their anxiety with covert, derisive laughter. Missus actin strange, Missus goin off in her head, Missus havin one'a them days so watch out. Reality would eventually intrude, in the form of the Daily Whig with war news, or she would see a soldier on the road or hear the sudden hum-rumble of cannon that sounded close but would actually have come from somewhere far to the north.

But nothing brought on the reality of her son's death as much as the arrival of his people.

Two weeks before, two of John-Corey's negros had come to Sweetsmoke Plantation in a wagon. John-Corey's other people had been sold, but John-Corey had left instructions that these people were special family and should be kept together. He had neglected to mention his personal body servant in these instructions and so Lewis, who had been by his side when John-Corey died at Manassas and had returned to his plantation to bring to the family the news of his death, had been sold with the others to a cotton and rice plantation in Georgia. John-Corey's last two negros had spent the winter and spring with John-Corey's widow closing up the big house at Howard Plantation. When Stephanie returned to live with her parents, John-Corey's people had been sent to Sweetsmoke. Two weeks now and Ellen had yet to meet them. Half a dozen times she called them to the big house, but each time she had been overcome with nervous emotion. John-Corey's special people brought back the pain of his death, so each time she sent them away without seeing them. She even used the excuse she had heard whispered among her people, that the girl was bad luck, a contagion carried from her son's plantation. Ellen knew the girl had been a good house girl, and the man, her father, had carried the keys. Ellen had not had a butler in the house since her second son Jacob had taken William, the plantation's butler, to be his personal servant when he had joined Turner Ashby's 7th Virginia Cavalry. Tomorrow, she thought. Tomorrow I'll feel stronger and I'll speak to John-Corey's people. In the meantime, they went to the fields with the others.

Perhaps it was no surprise that Ellen was incapable of meeting her son's people, as her life was now a series of superstitious gestures designed to keep Jacob safe and alive. She had let down her guard for John-Corey. Now she was afraid to alter any of her activities in case doing so should endanger her beloved second son.

In the afternoons she sometimes worked with water colors, upstairs with the windows open to catch the breeze. Before the war, her paintings had been of flowers and landscapes, but once her oldest son had gone off to fight, she began to create fanciful scenes of the Garden of Eden, incorporating many of the flowers and plants she had painted before, as if her previous body of work was but a premonition. Lately, purple storm clouds crowded the edges of her paintings, and more reds were evident in the trunks of the trees and branches, as if their inner cores were heated, athrob with light. In fact, amidst the shortages brought on by war, she was low on blue and green paint and had an abundance of red. Her husband fretted over her work, but the new red pleased her and she reached for it willfully.

Ellen paused in her reading to her people after the pleasure of speaking the words Gaines' Mill, feeling the syllables in her mouth as her tongue formed the final 'l' with a rubbery push off where the top of her mouth met her teeth. The wind changed then and brought the new smell through the open window and she lost the track of the sentence. Her body servant Pet smelled it as well, and unconsciously imitated Missus Ellen's rigid pose. Ellen recognized the smell and envisaged field dirt and sweat, moist body crevices and hidden hair and oil and blood and feces. She waited for the odor to pass. She closed her eyes, her upper lip pronounced, nostrils arched.

"Pet, in my dressing table, bring the bottle."

The bottle from Paris, Missus? said Pet.

Ellen nodded slightly and Pet went to her table. Pet was darker than the others in the big house, thus Pet was anxious about her position, even though she had worked there for four years. When Pet was out of her Missus's sight, she opened the drawer and took up the bottle of perfume. But she moved Missus's best petticoat and found the other bottle, the one that held the laudanum, the bottle Missus was using just a little more every day. Pet looked at that bottle longingly, then covered it over with the petticoat and with her hip pushed in the drawer. Pet had yet to connect her Missus's humming with the laudanum. She returned to Ellen with the Parisian perfume bottle in both hands.

So little left, said Pet.

Ellen took it. She hoarded the precious liquid, chose carefully the occasions to wear it, and even then was miserly when applying the scent as the bottom of the bottle came to sharp focus. She tried not to desire the way she felt when wearing perfume -- elegant, chosen, French -- but this other smell created nothing less than an emergency. She put the smallest possible dab in the hollow of her neck between her clavicles, and when that was insufficient, tipped the bottle to her fingertip and brought it to her philtrum, just a touch of wet applied to her upper lip beneath her nostrils. Her grandson continued to call for her, using that tone, but she did not answer.

* * *

Cassius was not aware that his hammer drove nails in time with the field song. Even when the wind came around and brought the song, he heard it the way he heard the sun on his shoulders or the sound of his own breathing. They were in the near fields this afternoon, within a mile of the big house.

He heard the song change. He rested a moment and turned his head and listened to the new song that told of death. A surge of apprehension drove into his chest. He rested the head of his hammer against the dirt, and the surge pumped in his palms and fingers and made them weak.

He looked down the hill knowing there would be a rider on the road approaching the big house.

Cassius wondered why the rider had stopped in the fields to tell the Overseer. That was how the hands would have learned the news; that was why they changed the song. Big Gus the Driver would have been sure to stand by Mr. Nettle at the moment the Overseer was told. Big Gus, one of the lighter-skinned field hands, worked near Mr. Nettle, and Mr. Nettle let him swing the bullwhip. Big Gus whipped harder than Mr. Nettle, to impress both him and the Master. Cassius pictured the moment, Big Gus bursting with the news, clearing his throat to show off his grand lubricious voice for the women -- I'm comin on to meet you, Lord -- drawing it out so the hands knew he was changing the song. The work would not stop, but the work song would abandon their tongues -- I'm comin on alone -- and spread across the field like a sudden wind spreading a small chop across the glass surface of a lake, and Cassius thought that the tobacco would grow tall humming the song, and those who chewed and snuffed it would taste death -- I'm lookin for to see you, Lord, That me a comin home.

The rider was close now, pink-necked, flush with news. Cassius knew him, Otis Bornock, a poor white. That explained why he had stopped in the fields, Otis Bornock knew Mr. Nettle. Otis Bornock and other town trash sometimes traded with the blacks. They would trade for things made by the hands late at night, or for things that mysteriously disappeared from the big house. That did not make him a friend. Otis Bornock might benefit from the trading, but he was more likely to turn on a black man than to help himself. Otis Bornock had once sold Cassius a bottle of whiskey so vile and raw, that it had taken Cassius an extra day to finish the bottle. Otis Bornock rode the back roads at night with the other Patrollers, and until three years ago, Mr. Nettle had been their leader.

Cassius watched the man come. Who was dead, and how did this death relate to the plantation? Any death that touched the planter family brought on an anxious time of limbo for the blacks. When a white planter, his wife, or one of their children died, ownership of slaves changed hands. Even the smallest peccadillo in a white man, a gambling debt or an illegitimate child, could propel waves through the slave community. Families might be broken up, wives sold from husbands, children sold from mothers. If they were sold to the cotton states, they would not be heard from again.

The pounding of the hooves slowed, the heat and perspiration of the horse crowded the yard, and Otis Bornock swung out of his sweat-black saddle, the seat of his pants clinging to leather, peeling away. The horse was thinner, surcingle straps hanging long under the horse's belly. Everyone was thinner now. Otis Bornock's pearl handled Colt Army revolver glinted momentarily in the sun, his sole proud possession that he claimed to have won in a poker game. Others said he found it on a dead man, and whispers that Otis Bornock had encouraged the man's condition before "finding" the gun added to his reputation. Cassius watched him hurry to the porch. Sweat rolled from his stained hat down the ends of his hair and dripped to his collar. Otis Bornock removed his hat at the door and ran his kerchief across his face. Pet came to the door, haughty and superior in the face of white trash, but Ellen came up behind her and greeted him graciously, even as Cassius saw terror in her eyes. Then she allowed him inside, a man like that, Cassius thought, allowed in her home. Cassius saw that she anticipated the worst possible news. Otis Bornock drew a letter from his back pocket and it was wrinkled and moist and Cassius imagined it stank of Otis Bornock's backside. Young Charles followed him in, quiet as a shadow. Charles understood the impact of the visitor, preceded as he was by the song. Cassius knew he would have to be careful about Charles. He had aroused an enemy, and the boy would not forget.

Cassius listened for the owl screech of anguish, but the silence inside stretched and he knew Master Jacob, Major Jacob Howard, was still alive. Cassius breathed. The planter's family remained intact.

Cassius straightened his shoulders to relieve the strain on his back, where the scar tissue was like a crust. He picked up a pail with fresh water and moved to the chuffing horse, which dropped its nose and drank loudly. While he knew not to water a sweating horse, this was Bornock's beast and Cassius was carrying out a plan. Cassius looked toward the door to Mam Rosie's kitchen. Once the horse finished, Cassius would walk to the pump by the kitchen to refill. By then, Mam Rosie would know the news.

Ellen came out of the big house onto the porch, the rider standing behind her in the dark of the room. She held the unfolded note in her hand.

"Cassius!" she called.

He set down the pail and stepped away from the horse into her line of view.

Yes, Missus Ellen, said Cassius.

"Mr. Bornock tells me the French gate leans."

That's so, Missus Ellen.

Cassius knew Bornock had said nothing of the kind, nor did he mention that the main gate had been leaning since the day it was built, that it had almost certainly leaned back in France on that vineyard.

"You go directly and straighten it out."

Yes, Ma'am. Right after I finish this fence Master Charles knocked down.

"That will have to wait. You get on down there like I said. And do it right the first time, Cassius, not like your usual."

I will, Missus.

She nodded to the rider, dismissing him. Otis Bornock returned to his horse and remounted. Cassius was not to know the news. Ellen would wait for Master Hoke, her husband, to return from Edensong later that afternoon to tell him. Young Charles stood in the doorway, staring at Cassius. Cassius could not help himself; he looked directly at Charles, and saw malicious satisfaction on the boy's face. The identity of the dead was bad news for Cassius, and everyone knew who it was but him.

Cassius collected his hammer and nails and a coil of rope. He listened to the horse hooves fade down the hill. He did not fetch from his carpentry shed the tools he would require to complete the work. He went directly down the hill to the main gate. One of the house girls, probably Nanny Catherine, was crying in Mam Rosie's kitchen. But he could not go there to discover why. Ellen Howard had made sure that he would not find out.

* * *

The main gate was from a vineyard in France, bought off the property by Hoke Howard on a European visit back in the days when money was in season. The field hands often told the story, heard second or third-hand, of Master Hoke riding in the French countryside, pulling up when he saw the magnificent gate. Well, Ol' Massa Hoke, he used to gettin what he want and he knows that gate belong not in France but on his plantation in the Commonwealth of Virginie, so he do what any self respectin Massa'd do, he walk on up to that ol' Frenchy's door and offer up a big ol' sack a' money like them burlap ones we got in the fields. The hands seemed to think it was so much money -- and with every recounting the amount increased -- that Mr. Frenchy had been astonished, but when Cassius heard the story, he imagined the Frenchman suppressing a smirk as he allowed himself to be overpaid. Cassius knew that when Hoke was flush, he threw around his money the way he threw around his weight, randomly, in grand pointless gestures. So Hoke had hired people to systematically break down the gate, numbering each piece as a local man made a drawing. The crates were then shipped back to the Commonwealth in one of his merchant ships -- before the blockade, when Hoke was still part owner of a fleet -- but along the way, the numbered drawing was lost. Here the hands out-embellished one another, describing the Old Master in a comic rage dismissing ships full of careless white men.

The gate was made of cedar, an overblown trellis that straddled the narrow road leading up to the big house, a vain and solitary structure in a vast landscape. While performing his apprenticeship as a carpenter -- and it was Hoke who had offered to take him out of the fields so he could take up carpentry -- Cassius had helped reconstruct the gate as it emerged from the crates, piecing it together like a puzzle. Hoke had then painted the name of the plantation across the top: Sweetsmoke....

What People are Saying About This

Robert Hicks
"David Fuller vividly and movingly describes the life of Cassius, a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Sweetsmoke resonates with unforgettable characters and is a gripping story of loss and survival."--(Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South)
Pat Conroy
Sweetsmoke is a fascinating and gripping novel about the Civil War. The slave, Cassius Howard, is a great fictional character, and his story is part mystery, part love story, and a harrowing portrait of slavery that reads with the immense power of the slave narratives. A tour de force for David Fuller."--(Pat Conroy, author of Beach Music and South of Broad)
Bell Madison Smartt
"With Sweetsmoke, David Fuller gives an extraordinarily nuanced, privileged, and convincing view of the world of slavery during the American Civil War, and of the hearts and minds of the men and women who had to live in that world."--(Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising and Toussaint Louverture)

Meet the Author

David Fuller has been a screenwriter for 25 years. He became fascinated with the role of African Americans in World War II as a young man when he befriended an African American pilot and worked closely with him for years. Fuller lives in Los Angeles with his wife, a VP for Twentieth Century Fox, and twin sons. Sweetsmoke is his first novel.

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Sweetsmoke 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was the most touching and heartbreaking story of slavery I have ever read. I'm actually listening to it on Audio and the narrator is EXCELLENT. I could not have gotten the same out of this book if I would have read it on my own. He puts in the accents and Southern 'draws' to where you can actually visualize the places, the roads, the towns, the tobacco fields, the clothes and the 'big houses'. I now want to re-watch 'Roots' with more understanding. The Blacks in America were treated horribly. Not half as bad as the Indians however, because the Blacks (as stated in this book) were cared for, fed and clothed as they were considered property. The Indians were thrown on reservations and forgotten. Both are scars on America history. The key word here is 'history'. Hopefully we have learned to appreciate what price our ancestors have paid for our freedom. This even includes women. We are all free and have the right to vote. All of us!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow! As much as you always think you know about slavery,you just read this account you cannot imagine how any human being can abuse another such as the treatment Cassius is given in this story. The strength and courage of the "Human Spirit" to actually live through it is amazing!!!
Whitney13 More than 1 year ago
SWEETSMOKE is a deeply compelling novel set in the world of Civil War Virginia. Cassius, David Fuller's protagonist, is a brilliant creation. He's a three dimensional character unlike any other I've read. I was captivated the voices and situations Fuller created. A definite five star debut!
Wisteria-L More than 1 year ago
Sweetsmoke, is the name of a fictitious southern plantation owned by Hoke Howard. The story takes place sometime during the Civil War when the roles of owner and master are hanging in the balance. Slaves are running to taste freedom and owners are desperate to maintain the status quo by creating horrific examples of those who dare to flee. Both master and slave are afraid, for the future is precarious and unknown. Hoke Howard is the owner of Sweetsmoke consisting of the land, tobacco crop, livestock and most important of all his slave chattel. Cassius is one of Hoke's favored slaves and for some unexplained reason he is treated differently. Their unique relationship is noticed by the slave community as they perceive freedom given to him that others do not have. Emoline Justice is a freed slave living in town who was once owned by Hoke. She lives in town and is a conjurer, a healer, who nurses Hoke back from a serious injury. During the time he spends with her he learns to read, a punishable offense, often by death. This being Cassuis' weapon, he keeps his secret from everyone. One day, Emoline is found dead, murdered by a crushing blow to her head from behind. Cassius becomes enraged with anger when he is told and has no choice but to seek vengeance for the death of his friend and teacher. To search for the killer, Cassius must leave the plantation requiring all his wit and skills to survive. He has never had so much freedom, but will he run given the chance? Fuller's storytelling is mesmerizing as he unveils hidden secrets of the Sweetsmoke Plantation that intertwine between the slave quarters and the big house. His book is destined to be a major classic of American literature. It should be included on any reading list choice in high schools where there is an American History curriculum and also included in the study of US History in college. David Fuller's writing is beautifully poetic, written with lyrical verse and deep passion. He is an accomplished storyteller whose years of screenwriting experience shows in this debut novel. As in any great movie, I couldn't wait to find out what happens. At the same time I wanted to savor the story and prolong the ending. Let's hope his next book is not too far in the future.
FootballChick More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I never wanted to put it down and was sorry when I finished it. I liked the style of writing where it is not alot of he said then she replied, etc. It is writen as though you were there during the conversations. I prefer that. The story is centered on a slave named Cassius and follows him and his fellow slave folk on the SweetSmoke farm during the Civil War. He has always wanted to be a Free Black and there may be an opportunity to achieve that. First he feels it necessary to solve the murder of the woman who cared for him when he was beat close to death. Perhaps even exact some revenge and retribution. The entire story is extremely fascinating and has lead me to read more slave themed books. I highly recommend this book.
peters365 More than 1 year ago
This book is very well written, full of imagery, deep and complex characters and heart wrenching emotion. This was a terrible time in our history and this book captures it fully. Cassius and Hoke, the main characters, will probably always be a part of my life from this point forward.
Twink More than 1 year ago
I've been anticipating reading David Fuller's first novel Sweetsmoke since it was released by Hyperion Books at the end of August.

I was captured by the cover image - work worn, lined, loosely clasped hands and I wondered the story behind them.

Fuller spent eight years researching this amazing novel. It tells the tale of Cassius, a slave and carpenter who lives on a tobacco plantation in Virginia. It is 1862 and the Civil War is in full swing. Interestingly Fuller found family connections to both sides of the War during his research.

After suffering a brutal punishment at the hands of his master Hoke Howard, Cassius is allowed to heal at the home of Emoline, a free black woman. Emoline secretly teaches Cassius to read and write. It is these secret lessons that ignite a need for knowledge, a want to know the world beyond the plantation.

"Cassius drove himself toward his journey in a step-by-step fashion, willing to risk everything, to know. To know."

When Emoline is murdered and it appears that no one cares to find the killer, Cassius vows he will find the killer and seek justice for Emoline.

This is a story with many threads, all of then engrossing. Life on the plantation, attitudes and the War are all portrayed with accuracy and detail, bringing to life this period in history. Fuller has also brought to life the lot of a slave, humanizing historical fact, in all it's shame. Although all the characters evoke strong emotions, it is the character of Cassius that kept me reading non stop. His journey towards knowledge and justice, combined with the mystery of Emoline's death is a gripping tale.

Sweetsmoke will be joining another similar book - "Rush Home Road" by Canadian Lori Lansens on my favourites list.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Life on a tobacco plantation circa 1862 is the background of this fascinating novel. It is the eve of the great battle of Antietam. Black and white relationships are beautifully delineated without preaching. The human element is totally credible. There are no villains no heroes. These are humans caught in the web of history living out their lives under difficult circumstances. Superimposed are a complex crime story and a heartbreaking romance. The Battle scenes are the best I have ever read. I would place this book in a special category of classic historical story telling. A must read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is an exceptional novel. Can I give more than five stars? Can I give ten? May I please offer twenty! This book has held me for the last several days in suspense, fear, anger, humor and yes despite the subject, joy. I LOVE THIS BOOK and I do not say this lightly. I am not going to go in to the story synopsis, others will have done this far better than I. Suffice it to say that through David Fullers expert writing I lived with the characters, cried with them and suffered with them. This is how good a story teller he is. I laughed - albeit a little bit at the cluelessness of 'frightened' slave owners, as they were trapped in the dysfunctional world of their own making. But what a novel, what a story to tell. Cassius our hero, is a wonder, a very angry man who has the strength and personal will to talk himself out of throttling everyone who 'gets his goat' even though most justly deserve it . He is good/bad, smart/simple, angry... vindictive ...and finally - forgiving. Cassius reaches a place most of us never will, despite being a slave all his life. What an incredible character, and what a great telling of a difficult and terrible part of our nations history. Most highly, HIGHLY recommended. Thank you LibraryThing for the opportunity to view this first hand. I just adored it. Best time I've spent behind a page in a long time. '*****'
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Kaly More than 1 year ago
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.