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Sweetsmoke by David Fuller


by David Fuller

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I live in the south. Every day, I see relics of days that to some symbolize the glory of the south, to others, a time of great shame for humankind. I was not born into southern culture (indeed, my own family fled from persecution elsewhere to settle in the United States in the days before World War I), but I still feel the scars that the enslavement of African Americans left on our world. When a friend from another country had trouble enjoying a visit to Charleston, saying he could feel the pain of slavery as he walked the streets of the city, it was a knife to my heart. It is not the way we live now, at least not in this part of the world, and while we are not perfect, I wonder how long those who inhabit this land will bear the responsibility of scars of the past.

Many people have a romanticized vision of slavery, due in part to its depiction in novels and movies. But even the kindest rendition in print or screen cannot deny that at its core, slavery involves ownership of one person over another. Sweetsmoke presents the reader with a huge array of relationships between between people of the south in that time of our history. The brutality is unflinching, the loyalties complex, the relationships tangled. It is a glimpse into the darkness of our past, exploring diverse aspects of the human psyche. It's a retelling of that wound in our national history called the Civil War. It's a character study of a man of passions and principles, despite his enslavement. It's a reminder that our greatest downfall is man's inhumanity to man, and our greatest strength is our ability to open our hearts to other people, and strive for what is right. I thought the author's technique of using quotation marks around the speech of free people, black or white, and none around the speech of the enslaved was a powerful tool to keep the reader reminded of the degradation of the human spirit when we succumb to the evils of saying we own another individual.

This is a book that is complex, and I may reread, because there are certainly nuances I missed. There were some moments in it that opened my eyes, not so much about the institution of slavery, but more regarding how the world was in that time-- figuring out how to pass a message, cross a river, make a rendezvous. I even found myself looking up some of the herbs and medicinal plants mentioned, as that's an interest of mine.

Many thanks to my friend Maggie, who recommended this book to me. I will pass it on thoughtfully.

Tags: advanced-reader-copy, didn-t-want-to-put-it-down, made-me-look-something-up, made-me-sad, made-me-think, places-i-have-been, read, read-in-2015, read-on-recommendation, set-in-the-south, taught-me-something, uncomfortable-reading-but-good ( )
  bookczuk | Jan 25, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Set in 1862 during the bloody American Civil War, part historical fiction and part mystery/intrigue and clearly well researched -- David Fuller's debut novel Sweetsmoke was no simple feat to write. Fuller has an easy straight-forward writing style that serves him well in this novel. He has clearly done his homework in research the period, the caveat to this is that the novel sometimes suffers when Fuller's two strong points collide in the narrative. Eager to share the great details he has researched Fuller sometimes counteracts his own easy writing style by going a little too deep which can make the novel sometimes feel a little uneven. That being said I do very much appreciate the fact that Fuller has done a very good job of working to flesh out all of his character -- imbuing them with both good and bad, right and wrong and therefore enriches the novel as they discover their likenesses in one another as well as the decisions each has made that have set the on opposing sides and different paths. The book should also be commended for crossing fiction genres and in doing so bringing something new to its readers. ( )
  KellyHewitt | Oct 22, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
David Fuller's first novel follows Cassius, a slave on the Virginia tobacco plantation Sweetsmoke. As the American Civil War rages on the periphery, Cassius spends his days tending to carpentry needs on the plantation and taking advantage of the small amount of freedom granted to him by the plantation master, Hoke Howard.

After a close friend is murdered, Cassius vows to find the killer, even though he risks the few things he holds dear in the process.

At its core, Sweetsmoke is a decent novel, especially coming from a new novelist. But the quality fluctuates through, which leads to a lot of headaches. Fuller often intercuts some well crafted intrigue with laborious descriptions of minutia, almost like he's trying to prove he did his historical research (in case you're wondering, he did). This is especially true for the first half of the novel; it's almost tough to make it through a few pages without grumbling.

That said, it picks up near the end, and the bittersweet conclusion works quite well in the context. Fuller also paints some compelling characters; he does a nice job of showing how multifaceted these people are.

Sweetsmoke was a fairly promising read, even though it had lapse of cluttered, over expository dialogue and descriptions. But some of the good elements made it worth trudging through. ( )
  wordsampersand | Dec 20, 2010 |
Sweetsmoke is David Fuller’s debut novel set on a Virginia tobacco plantation in July 1862. The Civil War erupts through the South and we are introduced to Cassius, an experienced carpenter and slave to Hoke Howard, owner of Sweetsmoke plantation. Cassius’ skills go beyond carpentry; he was secretly taught how to read and write by a freed slave named Emmoline Jolie. Emmoline was Cassius’ mentor and protector after a horrific incident occurred in his past that almost cost him his life. When Emmoline is shockingly murdered Cassius becomes consumed in avenging her, even if it puts him at risk.
David Fuller spent eight years meticulously researching this novel and it shows. It is rich in its descriptions and characters. The writing is beautifully elegant, composed with emotion and passion. The main plot is a murder mystery, but the layer upon layers of great characterization unveils talented storytelling. Some readers had trouble with the speech of the slaves not being placed into quotation marks. This was awkward at first for me but I came to understand that Fuller was trying to signify the separation and dehumanization of slaves. They were merely property, disposable at any point and time.
Unforgettable characters and a powerful novel. Highly recommended. ( )
  curlysue | May 12, 2010 |
Superb book. Set in Virginia during 1862, the protagonist, Cassius, is a slave on a Virginia plantation; the book is written from his point of view. Fuller avoids stereotypes, writing sympathetically from the slave experience, but slavery is exposed for what it was: degrading to both slaves and slave owners, but a horror for the slaves themselves. In a remarkably even-handed treatment, Fuller describes a spectrum of slave owners and conditions, and of the slaves themselves, not all of whom, by a long shot, are noble or likable.

Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote Joycepa | Apr 20, 2010 |
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Compromising his position as a favored slave in 1862 Virginia, talented carpenter Cassius investigates the murder of a close friend and finds an unexpected ally in field worker Quashee, an effort that earns the enmity of his master.

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