Search This Blog

Monday 6 March 2023


Elizabeth Nell Debus’ historical romance was published in 1989; but I’ve just got round to reading it!

It begins in May 1860, eleven months before the Civil War started. The story is from the viewpoint of eighteen-year-old Gabriele Cannon. The Cannons own a vast Louisiana plantation and a couple hundred slaves. She has an older brother Tom. Gabriele’s widowed father Oliver would like to free his slaves but state laws forbid it. Both Tom and Gabriele have been brought up with their aunt Mat’s slave girl Veronique; the latter is an accomplished dressmaker and earns money with her skill, though her earnings go to the aunt!

The novel is well written, with often lyrical descriptions, and captures the hopes and fears of the young Gabriele. Debus exhibits an understanding of the environment and all the people, the free and the enslaved.

‘And then she felt herself lifted as her mount left the earth, and for one moment in time, as the mare ran through air, the rider’s whole-body became light, buoyant, filled with a sense of union with the day, with the animal beneath her, with the world that bounded the life of Gabriele Cannon’ (p9).

While catching crayfish in the creek she observes a passenger on the deck of an approaching steam packet boat. This scene is artfully evoked by the cover painting by the artist David Bergen. Shortly afterwards, she is introduced to the passenger she had spotted: Alex St Cyr, an old friend of Tom’s, and Alex’s northern cousin, Jordan Scott.

Inevitably, both Alex and Jordan are attracted to Gabriele. Jordan’s family owns a lucrative shipping business. There is discussion concerning the lack of freedom of slaves to which Tom is sympathetic, while those who work on Scott ships are free men. Tom argues: ‘Legally (your seamen) are free. No one can actually sell them – but they are bought over and over again. Bought for low wages and given scandalous living quarters – not only in ships, but in factories all over the north’ (p93). It’s all very amicable, they agree to differ. Jordan intends to improve the lot of his workforce, but history interferes with his intentions.

Throughout, Gabriele is sympathetic to the plight of the slaves, even though compared to many plantations they are ‘treated well’.

Gabriele’s father is away a lot, involved in the politics, hoping to find compromise, but to no avail. His unexpected death means Gabriele must go into mourning dress.

Come April 1861, the die is cast – and very many will die as a result. Tom was drilling the home guard, as the military had moved north to combat the Yankees: ‘Spring sunshine, still pale and soft in late April, bathed the marchers with an almost veiled light, delicately gilding the long barrels of their rifles, staining their faces with the faint wash of gold’ (p223).

The fighting is virtually all reported: by newspapers or by witnesses who are usually fleeing. Terrible though the battles were, it is mainly only the results Gabriele sees: the wounded by the score.

Alex does not don the Confederate uniform, but becomes a blockade runner, his ship eluding the northerners. Jordan is fighting on the northern side. Tom too was away, fighting for the Confederacy. Gabriele and Aunt Mat coped, running the plantation.

When she finally relinquishes her mourning clothes, Gabriele appraises herself. She is older, and possibly wiser. The colour of her face ‘seemed fresher now, as though the heavy black of her mourning clothes had laid a film of grey over her skin that had now been removed’ (p235). She had ‘grown up’.

She had begun to realise that ‘The hardest battles are not with things outside ourselves, but with those within that work to make us lesser beings than we truly are’ (p247).

At 433 pages, this surprisingly was not a slow read. Interest was maintained throughout, with the reader wanting to know the fate of all of the finely drawn characters. In the mix: the disappearance of Veronique; a secret that Aunt Mat harboured; and the bonds of friendship that even war could not break, despite the friends being on different warring sides.

This historical saga is a fair and readable rendering of a young woman’s situation in a period fraught with complex issues, distress, privation and danger.

In these febrile times it is unlikely that Debus would find a publisher for this heartfelt honest book. I note that it doesn’t have any reviews on Amazon; and it doesn’t fare too well on Goodreads – averaging 3.5 stars. I’d give it four stars for the quality of the writing and the author’s sympathetic immersion in a past time.

The title is taken from HG Wells’ The Discovery of the Future: ‘The past is but the beginning of the beginning, and all that is and has been is but the twilight of the dawn.’ 

No comments: