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July 27, 2010 / C.T. Henry

REVIEW: Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

David Fuller’s harrowing tale about one slave’s quest for justice is truly outstanding debut novel. Sweetsmoke is one of those books that haunts you and makes you think at the same time.  Fuller does a great job of writing a story that has it all – mystery, action, comedy, love, and heartache – without going overboard or trying too hard.

The year is 1862, and the Civil War is in fully swing.  Cassius is a slave on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, where he’s just heard that Emoline, the elderly, free-slave woman who healed him mentally and physically, has been murdered.

“No one cares who did this to her said Cassius softly.  She nursed me back to health, taught me to be a man when the world treats me like a boy.  The one who did it took a life worth something.  If he sat where you sit now, I’d take his life in return this very moment.”

Although discovering Emoline’s killer is the plot device which carries the novel, it’s the other parts, such as the daily life on the plantation, the gossip and intrigue among the slaves, the relationship between Cassius and his Master, and the unique individuals he meets in his travels, that make this book outstanding.  It’s really a powerful portrayal of life during the Civil War.  Set in Virginia, you read about what Southerns thought about the war and what it meant to slaves and slave owners alike.  Reading this tale was like being behind enemy lines.  Its voyeuristic appeal is enthralling and fascinating.

My only criticism was Fuller’s taxing writing style.  His unconventional lack of quotation marks made it was extremely difficult to tell when Cassius was speaking and when he was just thinking.  That said, I got used to it.  There were other passages as well that challenged me as a reader, and it’s been a long time since that’s happened to me.

Overall, this was one of the best books I’ve read all year.  Highly recommended!

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