‘Child of the South’ brings racial struggles to life

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 9, 2009

“Child of the South,” by Joanna Catherine Scott. Berkley Books. 2009. 328 pp. $14.
By Deirdre Parker Smith
“Child of the South,” with its many shades of meaning, applies to two extraordinary people in Joann Catherine Scott’s new novel, a sequel to “The Road to Chapel Hill.”
Set during Reconstruction in Wilmington, the novel follows three characters from the previous story, Eugenia Mae Spotswood and her extended family, former slave Tom Maryson and his captor, Clyde Bricket. She adds the real historic figure Abraham Galloway, a mulatto who becomes a powerful state senator.
Eugenia’s father has gone mad after losing everything and working in a gold mine near Gold Hill. He hangs himself in their tiny cabin, leaving her shocked and desperate.
She blames herself, in part. She freed their slave, Tom, whom she loves, to prevent her father from dragging him to Australia.
She meets Abraham on a train bound for Wilmington, as well as her cousin, Christopher Clark-Compton, who insists she must come to live with his family and not stoop to finding work.
Something about Abraham is familiar ó something draws her to him; could it be her own secret? She does not know who her birth mother is ó Mama, who treated her roughly, or her father’s slave, Tilde. She is determined to find out, yet terrified of the truth.
Now an abolitionist, she speaks freely to her un-reconstructed family, who is living in the slave quarters of their grand home while Yankee soldiers occupy the rest.
When she insists she will earn her keep, the family is naturally offended. Trained as a nurse from her time at the gold mine, Eugenia also has experience at a secret hospital in Salisbury that treated escapees from the Confederate prison and sick deserters, covered in Scott’s previous novel.
Tom comes back from the Union Army to the farm where he was once a slave. Now he can read and write and has learned many things from his Army instructor, Abraham.
Clyde, nearly useless with a twice-cut gangrenous leg, his fierce Ma and blind Uncle Benjamin own the farm. A nurse from the secret hospital got him home, but refused to stay with him. Benjamin’s eyes were “blasted from his head by a field gun misfiring.”
Tom has a proposition. He and Clyde will become partners and work the land together. The Brickets want nothing to do with their former slaves, but Tom realizes there’s only one way this will work: “It seems to me,” Tom said, “that if we’re going to get along together on this farm, best we do it like a family. Then we all stand up for each other and no one gets the short end of the stick. …”
And so an odd bargain is struck. And it’s indicative of what can happen when the races cooperate. It’s also a foretelling of trouble to come.
Eugenia finds work through the Freedman’s Bureau as a nurse, becoming the caregiver for the black community in Wilmington, delivering babies, treating fevers.
This is how she meets Abraham, coming to tend to his mother. Here, her suspicions of being a mulatto are stirred. She is ashamed to talk to either race about her mixed blood.
Cousin Christopher is given to violent tempers and is strongly against the black man having the vote or any power whatsoever. He builds a law practice, find a job for his father and secretly loves Eugenia.
Eugenia walks a fine, fine line, spending most of her days among the former slaves, listening to talk of education, votes, empowerment.
Clyde and Tom work well together, raising crops and finding other skills that earn them money. But they have a watcher in the woods.
As Abraham gains power, he too, is constantly threatened. The fragile existence of this new world is about to come tumbling down and Eugenia learns the truth about her mother, her cousin and all too many other things.
Scott’s gift is in making all these characters seem real, the likeable and the despicable. An Australian by birth, she has soaked up the history of the South and recreates it with factual details and plausible stories.
Be sure to check out the Reader’s Guide at the end of the novel, a nice feature being added to many books.
But don’t read it before finishing the novel. The questions will help you probe more deeply into the significance of what you’ve just read.
The endings for Scott’s characters cannot be fully happy, as real life, especially at that time, had many trials and much suffering. Every one of the people Eugenia loves will be touched by death, threats and fear.Some rise above. All the ties come together in the end ó all the ones you’ve seen as a reader and more. Amidst the shining memories are gales of wailing grief, loss, injustice.
Yet Scott pulls it all together in a very human story that brings to life a supremely troubled time in a supremely troubled world.

Joanna Catherine Scott will be at Literary Bookpost, 119 S. Main St., on Friday, April 17, during Earth Night Out, signing her books from 6-8:30 p.m.