I finished Slant of Light by Steve Wiegenstein last night, and, I must say, it is one of the most unique storylines I've read in a long time. The characters are realistically strong, compelling, and flawed, and the plot is highly engaging and rich with history, taking place between 1857 and 1862. It also is set not terribly far from St. Louis. Since almost nothing is set around here, this was a refreshing change from the all too common settings of New York or California.
Slant of Light revolves around three main characters, Adam Cabot, an idealistic abolitionist from Boston, Charlotte Carr Turner, an intelligent and steadfast young woman from a military family, and James Turner, Charlotte's husband, a writer and lecturer swept away by the power of his own ideas. James had written a novel about a self-sustaining community founded on the ideals of pure democracy and equality, but he never expected to put his lofty ideas to the test until George Webb,a Missouri landowner inspired by Turner's book, offered up part of his land in the Eastern Missouri Ozarks to start the experimental community for real. So, in August of 1857, James decides (without consulting his new wife) to establish Daybreak among the "hill people," about 100 miles south of St. Louis. He is both apprehensive and optimistic:
…his principle had always been that the idea preceded the action. If he pretended to know what he was doing, and pretended to be unafraid, then soon enough he would figure out what to do, and the fear would go away. He must act as if he had a clear purpose, and soon enough the purpose would emerge.
Everyone involved in the social utopian experiment knew it would be rough going at first, but no one knew quite how rough. The only person experienced at farming was George Webb, the benevolent landowner, and the work is back-breaking and long, the food in short supply, the neighbors less than friendly, and George's whiskey-making son Harper is resentful that half the land he was to inherit has been given away. A guest in the community observes to Adam Cabot:
"For God's sake, listen to you! I thought you were more intelligent than to fall in with this troop of monkeys. Look at them, working like slaves, and for what? The common good, the community? Don't make me laugh. You're all intoxicated by the great ideas of the great man, and what has it gotten you?"
"A community of fellow strivers."
"An island of dreamers in a sea of strife."
Sam Hildebrand, a legendary Missouri bushwhacker, is woven into the story, and proves an intriguing challenge to the community. He is presented as not entirely awful or immoral, but dangerous, and with his own sense of honor and justice. I was also surprised to learn how much the civil war affected this area of the country, as most of what one learns about that awful part of our history focuses on the southeast, but it seems the war crept in everywhere. The weakest part of the story, for me, was the love triangle, but then, romance with more seriousness than levity rarely works for me. I know the characters are constricted by the social norms and morals of the times, which allowed me to digest the saltier bits of it, and it didn't distract me too much for the overarching story and themes.
The characters themselves are well developed with a perfect mix of lovable and irritating nuances, including many of the secondary characters, and their growth is both subtle and realistic. Charlotte, to me, proved to be the strongest among them, but not in the tired behind-every-strong-man-is-a-stronger-woman way; she was a leader in her own right, and it was lovely to see a woman in that role set in the time period. She realizes later in the novel:
...she knew that this community was no longer an experiment to her. It was her home, one that she had chosen as surely as she had chosen Turner, and one she would never willingly leave. On the side of the distant mountain she could see the gravestones. They had buried loved ones there. They were no longer just visiting--or playing as Harp had accused them. They were bound to this place now, war or no war.
Overall, I really enjoyed Slant of Light and would highly recommend it to those that enjoy American historical fiction every now and then (and even those that never think to pick it up), and don't mind or even enjoy a bit of a love story thrown in, as well as to those that are looking for an original and engaging story of idealism not quashed by the need to survive, but transformed into something both real and hopeful. I was happy to learn upon finishing that this is the first in a series, and look forward to visiting the characters again in the future.
Steve Wiegenstein is an academic and a scholar of the Icarians, a French utopian movement, and Slant of Light is his debut novel. Learn more about him, the novel, and the publisher, Blank Slate Press, here.