I originally picked A Different Sin, the story of two newsmen who fall in love in 1850s New York, and the experiences of one of the two – the protagonist, David – as a war artist, from my extensive TBR American Civil War books pile, to mark Pride month. Then I found out that there was an earlier book, As Far As Blood Goes, about David’s half-brother Michael, who was born into slavery in Virginia but escaped to make a new life for himself in Massachusetts, and decided that, given the present circumstances, it’d be a good time to read that as well.
The story in the earlier book, which I think was the author’s debut novel, is pretty far-fetched, but it does do a reasonable job of getting across some of the horrors of slavery. The second book is far better written, and works well both as a war novel and as a novel of a relationship between two men at a time when Western society didn’t accept same sex love. It also addresses the frustration of black men wanting to enlist in the Union Army, with Michael’s eldest son eventually enlisting in the famous Fifty Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, and the attacks on black people in New York during the Draft Riots. However, whilst it’s pretty good on facts and figures, I felt that it could have explained the causes of the war better. Also, it all but ignored the fact the main character was a Southerner living and working in the North, which was rather odd. But nothing’s perfect … and I’m *extremely* picky about novels covering this period of history.
The first book’s told entirely from Michael’s point of view, and the second book entirely from David’s point of view. That’s a shame in a way, because it means we don’t get to share anyone else’s thoughts or feelings. On the other hand, it *is* all about them – Michael’s position as a black man born into slavery, David’s as a gay man born into a society which doesn’t accept same sex relationships – and so it’s their thoughts and feelings which really matter. The author’s done a very good job of avoiding extremes or stereotypes or preaching, and, although not without some quibbles, I enjoyed both books.
At the end of the second book, the lessons of both are brought together when David sees how horrific it is that society will allow people to be mistreated because of the colour of their skin, and yet, at the same time, condemns two people for being in love. It’s rather sad that, 155 years later, there are still some people who are guilty on both counts. #BlackLivesMatter #LoveisLove.
As Far As Blood Goes starts in the 1820s, in the very lovely town of Alexandria, where I stayed for a few nights in 2001. A Dr Carter has two sons – David, his son by his late wife, Anne, who died when David was little more than a baby, and, barely a year younger, Michael, his unacknowledged son by his slavewoman, Hetty. Hetty dies a few years into the book. Michael’s everything he would have wanted in an acknowledged son, academic and hard-working and interested in medicine: David is only interested in art.
The author’s tried very hard not to go to any extremes, as I said. Dr Carter isn’t evil Simon Legree, but nor is he beloved Gerald O’Hara. It’s made quite clear that Michael and Hetty despise their status and long for freedom. We also hear that Hetty had a husband and three children but was separated from them when her previous owner sold her. And we see Michael’s best friend, Sammy, being sold south by his owner, a neighbour. But Dr Carter isn’t, at this stage, cruel. We also learn that he didn’t physically force Hetty, but that she was only compliant because she knew she had little choice.
And, unlike a lot of novels about slavery, there are no plantations here: we don’t get dozens of slaves working in the fields, and others working in a grand home. That’s probably the image most people have of slavery in the South; but it wasn’t all like that, and it’s good to see a book showing that. We’ve got middle-class, urban families who each own two or three slaves. We’ve also got free blacks, and slaves who are allowed to earn money by working for themselves, and hope to buy their freedom. And we’ve got slave children, free black children and white children playing together. Rather unrealistically, Michael tricks some of the white boys into helping him learn to read by asking them to teach him a few letters at a time. When Dr Carter finds out, he’s OK about it, and Michael helps him with his medical work … until his baddie brother-in-law (BBIL), who’s convinced that his sister (David’s mother) died from the shock of learning that her husband had been sleeping with their slave, finds out, and convinces the authorities that Michael’s a rebel (this is around the time of the Nat Turner Rebellion), and Michael’s flogged.
After this, Michael’s determined to escape. He does so once, but is recaptured. Dr Carter sells him to a slave trader gang, but one of his white erstwhile playmates helps him to escape, and he makes it to Philadelphia, then New York, then Maine, where he’s able to enter medical school. I did say that the storylines were rather far-fetched! But, OK, plenty of slaves did escape. And, rather than take the surname Freeman, or the surname of a prominent Abolitionist, or indeed the surname Carter, he takes the surname Mabaya, the name of his great-grandfather, who was brought from Africa to America by slave traders: that but was excellent.
He becomes best friends with Isaac, a Jewish student who also feels that he’s treated as outsider. They both qualify as doctors, move to Boston, become involved with the Anti-Slavery Society there, meet and marry nice young ladies, and have children. Some well-known names feature – Oliver Wendell Holmes snr and Charles Sumner. I’m so used to associating Sumner with the Preston Brooks incident that I’m afraid I don’t always remember all the important work he did. However, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 means that all the former slaves in Boston are living in fear of capture: some are helped by the Underground Railroad to leave for Canada.
There’s quite a lot about the Compromise of 1850, and also about medical history. Michael and Isaac are very involved in trying to prove that microbes cause cholera … and who should turn up at one of their lectures but Dr Carter, having seen the name Michael Mabaya and put two and two together. He seems pleased that Michael’s done so well for himself, and says that he’ll buy him back from the slave trader gang and formally free him.
But then slave hunters turn up, and Michael’s taken back to Virginia. It turns out that, unbeknownst to Dr Carter, the BBIL had bought him from the slave traders, and now plans to sell him south. The BBIL stuff is pretty stupid, but we do get an excellent depiction of a man being torn away from his wife, his children and his job, and taken back into slavery, and of the divisions within white American society over whether or not this is right. This bit is very well done indeed.
Then one of Michael’s old pals helps him to escape (a lot of escaping goes on in this book), with the help of David. But the BBIL turns up and, in all the kerfuffle, David is knocked over by a buggy, and badly injured. Dr Carter is too shocked and nervy to operate, so Michael saves David’s life, whilst the BBIL’s threatening to shoot them all. The BBIL’s a bit unhinged by events, and, in the confusion, signs a bill of sale which the Carters have hastily drawn up, selling Michael back to Dr Carter. Dr Carter sets him free, and there’s a love-in and Michael says that he wants his father to get to know his children.
As I said, rather far-fetched! But it does make some very good points about the horrors of slavery, about people being sold away from their families, about how people who’d escaped and forged new lives for themselves could be recaptured years later … and also about how plenty of slaves were actually the children or half-siblings of their owners.
In A Different Sin, with everyone now one big, happy family, and Dr Carter and David both regularly visiting Michael and his wife and children, we see David give up his job as a not very successful lawyer in Alexandria, and move to New York to work for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and become involved with Zach, a reporter for the Tribune. They meet on a train: it’s amazing how many romances in books begin on trains! Again, we meet several well-known names – Horace Greeley, Walt Whitman, Thomas Nast. (Incidentally, Louisa M Alcott later had stories published in what was by then called Leslie’s Newspaper.)
Although the main plot is the relationship between David and Zach, it’s a Civil War novel (or whichever alternative name you prefer to use for the war between the United States and the Confederate States) and we do see military action, hospital scenes, and the Draft Riots. Without writing an essay on the issues between the different groups of people in New York, amid rivalry for jobs and general racism, the Draft Riots, whilst New York was unique because of its “melting pot status”, say a lot about racial tensions within the cities of the Union states at the time. We also, as I’ve said, hear about Michael’s son enlisting.
There’s a lot of factual information about the war and about political events, but the book does go too far down the road of the myth that the war was all about slavery and that Lincoln was some great civil rights hero. It’s made clear that most white people in the Union states don’t regard black people as equals, and that a lot of them wouldn’t be fighting a war just about slavery, and the prejudice of the white soldiers against black soldiers is certainly made clear. However, the Southern characters don’t talk about states’ rights, and the Northern characters don’t talk about the Union, and I wasn’t overly impressed with that.
Also, even after war breaks out, no-one seems very bothered that David’s a Virginian (albeit a Union sympathiser and opponent of slavery) working in the Union. He does a lot of talking about “Rebs” and “Secesh”, so, OK, I think we can accept that he supports the Unionist cause, but he doesn’t ever seem to have an issue with the fact that his home state of Virginia’s on the other side. I didn’t find that very realistic. And he seems able to move between New York and Virginia remarkably freely!
It was actually more of a war novel and less of a romantic novel than I’d expected, because David and Zach are apart, and not even in touch, for much of it. This is David’s choice. Zach’s comfortable with who he is, but David’s convinced that it’s a sin and a “perversion”, and hates himself for it. That doesn’t make for easy reading, but I think the author does do a good job, and certainly a very sympathetic one, of depicting his struggles with himself. The issue is far more his struggle with himself than the views of other people, because hardly anyone else knows: most people keep asking him why he isn’t married, and – in another of the less realistic plots! – he meets a fellow war reporter who turns out to be a woman dressed up as a man because she wants an adventure/to be involved, and gets a bit involved with her.
Anyway, to get back to his time in New York, he and Zach are caught by a mutual friend (it’s amazing how people in books, films and TV programmes never think to lock doors!), and it’s after that that he decides that he can’t cope with their relationship. He and Zach fall out big time. Zach has tried very hard to make him accept that it’s OK, but he can’t. So, to get away, he volunteers to be a war reporter/artist at the front – following General Meade, whom I feel I’ve “known” ever since I read North and South, in which he’s at West Point with Orry and George, when I was 11, and then General Grant in the long and eventually decisive campaign against General Lee. I’ve read both North and South and Gone With The Wind so many times that I was expecting him to be reporting on Sherman’s March, but that’s probably just me!
It does then become primarily a war novel, with a lot of detail about battle and camp life, but we do frequently see David thinking about the fact that he’s attracted to men and not attracted to women, and thinking about Zach. Then, after a lot of blood and guts, and seeing the way the white soldiers treat the black soldiers – he saves the life of a black soldier who was about to be murdered in cold blood – the lessons of the two novels are pulled together when David sees how ridiculous it is that his society treats black people so badly and yet condemns two men for loving each other. He goes back to New York, is reunited with Zach, and, presumably, they live happily ever after 🙂 .
But Dr Carter, who’d accepted and acknowledged Michael as his son, wouldn’t accept David’s homosexuality, and cut him off. This all happened in rather a rush at the end, and maybe it could have been developed more fully, but, sadly, it’s – unlike some aspects of the books – very realistic. And the ending was certainly interesting – I was expecting his experiences during the war to make David realise that life was too short not to be with the one you loved, etc, but the idea that it was seeing the way the black soldiers were treated that made him realise what was and wasn’t a sin actually worked much better.
OK, I seem to have written way too much here – 19th century American history specialist since I was 11, OK – so I shall shut up now! But these were two very thought-provoking books, and I’m glad that I’ve read them.