Child of the South by Joanna Catherine Scott
My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars
Full of rich language, passion and tension, Joanna Catherine Scott’s Child of the South continues the story of her characters from The Road to Chapel Hill. Her new novel is set in the years immediately following the Civil War told from the point of view of two star-crossed lovers: 24-year-old Eugenia Mae Spotswood, the assumed white daughter of a failed Wilmington businessman and now a nurse for the Freedman's Bureau, and Tom, a former slave who owns a large farm outside Chapel Hill. They initially met as mistress and slave; Eugenia gave Tom his freedom papers and after capture he eventually became a scout for the Union army under the leadership of a dashing mulatto, Abraham Galloway, who taught him the importance of standing up for himself, as well as how to read and write. Galloway is an actual historical figure who died under mysterious circumstances, which Scott fictionalized in her book.
More than anything, Eugenia wants to find her birth mother, whom she knows still lives around Wilmington. This woman was her father's black mistress. Eugenia has a chance to stay in Chapel Hill, but she knows she must find her mother and discover who she really is. Seeing Eugenia as a mixed race person was especially hard for me. We learn that Eugenia has very curly, unruly hair, but other than that, there aren't many clues. No one suspects she could have any black blood in her, not even her Confederate cousins in Wilmington, where she lives for four years after the Civil War. I wanted her to be darker, or at least see something about herself that she knows is different.
Eugenia's story is told in the first person and Tom's is in third person, which is really the only way that all of the historical perspectives can be discussed since Eugenia can't always be in the same place as the decision makers at every turn. However, Eugenia is a catalyst in her own right by balancing historical accuracy. Scott does a great job of making sure Eugenia doesn't go too far beyond historical prejudice between blacks and whites, although at times I was wondering if Eugenia wasn't just a little too liberal. The point of view shifts are divided by chapter so there's no reader confusion and I liked this since I always felt I knew what was coming.
Scott's strengths are with the accurate sensory details of this time and place and with the language. I love how she uses "fell to" a great deal and how she doesn't overdo the African American dialect. Her dialogue is sharp and the details set the tone without being overdone. However, I would have liked to have seen more action and a quicker pace throughout the book and less sitting around talking about the future. Because of the leaps in time there was a great deal of summary, which Scott handled well. However, I would have liked to experience a fight with the Klan or a narrow escape; I always felt that most of the good action happened off stage.
As for the characters, I liked the secondary characters rather than the primaries. Clyde Bricket is an amputee and Tom's former owner and now business partner/fellow farmer and he's very interesting. So is Christopher Clark-Compton, Eugenia's cousin who wants to be her husband. He's not very savory, but he does have his gentler moments. The heroes in the book: Eugenia, Abraham, Tom did seem a little too perfect, but that being said Eugenia had the best voice. We really could experience what 1865 felt like from her point of view. Scott never shies away from addressing post Civil War politics, so we see the great class and race divide that still haunts us to this day.
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