Sweetsmoke by David Fuller has been all over the place and has gotten such great reviews that I wanted to try it for myself. Originally my copy came from the library, but it turned out to be a book that I wanted for my collection because at some point I would like to read it again.
There were a lot of things that I loved. One of the most fascinating aspects of this novel is its take on the murder mystery. When Emoline Justice is murdered, everyone is cautious about telling Cassius, a taciturn slave on the Sweetsmoke plantation, the news. Cassius’s owner, Hoke Howard, with whom Cassius has a complicated and painful relationship, calls him specially into his office to tell him that Emoline has been murdered, but before he does, Hoke asks Cassius whether there is anything that will make him run again. As the book unfolds, we find out that Cassius holds a very special place for Emoline ever since she nursed him back to health after a brutal whipping following the death of his wife and his subsequent run. The details of these events and how they came about are carefully unfolded as the story progresses. While Cassius is recovering Emoline tells him stories and eventually teaches him to read. Cassius finds that whatever the cost, he cannot let her death go unavenged, and so he takes it upon himself, at great personal risk, to play detective and find out who killed her.
Cassius’ knowing how to read and the effect it has on his life is carefully explored. We see him reading some of the great classics of literature like Julius Caesar and the Odyssey and comparing his circumstances against the logic that he finds in these books. At one point he is marveling that there are other men besides black men who can be slaves and he ponders this information just as he wonders about the meaning of his name and, if Hoke has given it to him for any particular reason. It was very interesting to me to follow his thought processes about his condition as a slave and what he could do about it.
The book has wonderful characterizations of both people and the environment in which the slaves and master lived. You really get to understand the working of the plantation and the insidiousness of slavery and how it was institutionalized in society and in the written laws and information in how to manage people. All things that I have heard and read before, but I think I am always a little shocked at how such evil things can be codified and in regular secular writing and pamphlets. Cassius and Quashee’s relationship illustrated the difficult obstacles in the path of love if you were unfortunate enough to be born a slave instead of free.
There were times that I questioned Cassius’s freedom in moving around the plantations and the adventures that he has. It is necessary for him to take risks if he is going to solve Emoline’s murder, but at times the risks seemed too high and just plain foolhardy. The times were harsh and I just found myself questioning a lot whether some of the conversations that he had would have ever been possible, and while he could have gotten away with frequently running around outside the farm, and his reckless interactions with people on a number of occasions left me with some questions. But, at the same time I was always invested enough in this book and these characters to be worried about the risks being taken. I also know that truth can be stranger than fiction, so I wasn’t surprised that David Fuller had based a lot of these shocking situations on real events. Though the ending moved very quickly and could have been fleshed out more fully, I really enjoyed reading this novel and pondering the history contained in its pages.