#90 ~ Sweetsmoke

July 31, 2008 at 5:15 pm | Posted in Books, Culture, Historical Fiction, Reading | 7 Comments
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Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

This novel, written by screenwriter David Fuller, tells the story of Cassius Howard, the carpenter slave owned by Hoke Howard, a Virginia tobacco farmer. A series of tragic events transformed Cassius from his place Hoke’s favorite and it cost him dearly. The only bright light in the entire situation was the time that Cassius was allowed to recuperate with Emoline Justice, a free black woman. Although Cassius learns a lot from Emoline, her example does not stop him from hardening himself to life and others when he returns back to the plantation. As time goes on, however, he becomes less able to avoid stepping in and helping others when he senses trouble. He even finds himself opening his heart to another slave. When he learns that Emoline was viciously murdered and that there were no plans for the local officials to even investigate it, he cannot and no longer wants to simply sit back and allow this injustice to continue. He vows to find her killer and bring that person to justice no matter what it cost him.

This is a novel that took me by surprise. I can’t say that it started out slow, because that would do it a disservice. What is true is that the first 100 pages built toward something that took me and held my imagination captive until the end. As a reader, I felt that I understood fully what it meant to be a slave. I felt I understood why Cassius had no hope for freedom in his life. Yet, as this same reader, I held out hope for him. In that way, Cassius was much more prepared for what he faced than I was. Much more prepared. When Cassius is forced to watch a female slave be sold in town, I could barely breathe. It was not an unfamiliar scene, but the added details shook me inside. Despite his distaste, Cassius swallowed him emotions as he was expected. In fact, Hoke appeared more tore up about what happened.

Fuller brings the world of slavery to light in a fresh and unique way. The most notable and thought provoking way that Sweetsmoke conveys the dehumanization of slaves was stylistic. When a free person spoke, be they black or white, rich or poor, their words were encased by quotation marks. Not so for the enslaved. When Cassius, Mam Rosie, Big Gus, and the others like them spoke, there were no quotation marks. This tripped me up fairly often at the beginning of the novel. I would read a paragraph and in my confusion realize that I was reading dialog, not prose. My reading quickly improved, but even at the end I stumbled from time to time. Still, I appreciated this choice on the part of the author. It brought home how insignificant slaves were to their owners. The fact that they might have hopes and dreams was wholly ignored and brushed aside. This was something they embodied every day. They didn’t have a last name of their own, so why would they think that their words should be heard or set apart? The lack of quotation marks makes perfect sense.

Sweetsmoke is a compelling and relevant historical novel about the lives of slaves and plantation owners. In Fuller’s world there are good and bad people on both sides of the front door of the big house. No one is idolized or demonized. Like reality, characters simply are who they are. They are not stereotyped. If you want to read challenging historical fiction, you should read this book.

To buy this novel, which will be released on August 26, click here.


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  1. Hi Jennifer~
    You read the best books. This is the second one in a week that has caught my attention. You’re going to cause my Amazon wishlist to implode.

  2. Great review. I’ve got this one coming from Harper Collins here in Canada and I’m even more anxious to read it after your review.

  3. I can’t decide if I want to add this to my TBR list. It’s such heavy subject matter. I think (like you mentioned a few posts back) I need to read some chick lit before tackling this.

  4. Definitely going to add this one to my TBR list. However, I’ve got to do some light reading before tackling this one. The last while have been a bunch of heavy books (What the Body Remembers, The Gargoyle), and I’m in need of a little fluff.

  5. I would agree that if you need some light reading not to pick this up, but it’s not as intense as The Gargoyle, either. My review focused on some of the heavier topics, but it’s not like that the entire way through.

  6. […] about how he came to write this wonderful novel below and also read some glowing reviews from  Literate Housewife and Peeking Between the Pages,   If I missed yours please let me know so I can post it also.  […]

  7. […] how David came to write this wonderful novel below and also read some glowing reviews from  Literate Housewife , Peeking Between the Pages,  A Bookworms Dinner   Devourer of Books  Medival […]

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