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Novel set in the Deep South (Natchez and New Orleans)

11th July 2014

The Blood of Heaven by Kent Wascom, novel set in the Deep South (Natchez and New Orleans).

1611855713.01.ZTZZZZZZIf you google Natchez, Mississippi, you’ll see that it is the oldest settlement on the Mississippi river and that it has more antebellum houses than any other place in The United States, but before you go misty eyed and start imagining a novel filled with southern gentlemen and beautiful belles in ball gowns, set against a backdrop of white mansions – think again.

True, the novel begins in New Orleans in 1861, with the central character, Angel Woolsack, a confederate, about to breathe his last, as the Union forces approach. He has been rejected by his wife and the great wealth he has amassed can bring no comfort, as he begins the story of his life. So, a mere eight pages into the book, we are plunged back to 1776 and a very different world.

From the beginning Angel Woolsack’s life is one of trial and tribulation, with precious little relief. The son of a preacher, so godly that he wouldn’t allow his child to call him father, always just Preacher, Angel’s early days are spent trailing miserably after his fierce father as the latter tries to bring the word of God to small communities, so miserably poor that they are literally living in holes in the ground. Soon enough, Angel takes up with a charismatic highwayman, Samuel Kemper, and flees from his father and his small community before he has to face the punishment for his sins. And thus begins Angel’s life of relentless robbery and violence.

Wascom spares no punches in this huge first novel – he gives us life in the raw with all the brutality, which I am sure, characterised those early days in America. The book is filled with graphic descriptions, which stay with the reader (I suspect forever!). Who can forget Preacher-father’s unique punishment for little Angel? Forced to chew burning coals, while Preacher-father asked him if he could “taste the Hell in there?”. Or Wascom’s description of Angel’s first sexual experience with the delectable Emily Fladeboe, while the lice jump off her scalp and she tries to fix her wandering eye on him.

Wascom, has, I think, managed to convey the speech rhythms of the period accurately, but has an unfortunate tendency to produce convoluted prose which makes it heavy going. It does come alive in places, however, for example when he describes Angel and Samuel’s journey on a barge on the Mississippi. Here, it is reminiscent of Twain’s description of Huck and Tom on a similar journey and gives the reader a taste of what might be to come from this young writer.

In terms of plot, the novel is constrained somewhat by the necessity of following the historical events as they occur. It’s a rattling good tale, but it is difficult to truly love a book when the central character is so remorselessly unloveable. Even, at the end, when Angel is cruelly punished, it’s hard to feel much sympathy. You do, however, feel for Angel’s wife, Red Kate, and the subplot involving her and their ill fated son, is poignant and well written.

Wascom is going to be a writer to watch and I’m glad I read this book. I won’t forget it in a hurry, that’s for sure. And it might make the reader want to visit the Mississippi area, if only to reassure themselves about how far it has come in those two hundred odd years.

Ellen for the TripFiction Team

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