Review: Slant of Light by Steve Wiegenstein, Blank Slate Press, April 2012
The American Civil War is a fitting backdrop for stories of romance, drama, and intrigue. Indeed, the true stories of the era often seem stranger than fiction. Some of the best fiction itself is inspired by history, and Steve Wiegenstein’s novel, Slant of Light, demonstrates an artful combination of fact and fiction. Wiegenstein tells a captivating story of idealism, love, betrayal, and violence set in Missouri during the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. Wiegenstein’s novel does not focus on the war itself, but instead centers on the creation of a fictional utopian community, Daybreak, and its residents’ attempt to build a perfect society in the midst of political turmoil, secession, and war. Because the main characters are dedicated to the success of a social experiment in communal living, the war takes a backseat in an interesting way, demonstrating how difficult it was for citizens to avoid being caught up in the events that culminated in civil war. Abolition, slavery, guerrilla violence, and sectional loyalty are all key components of this novel, but the central concept is about ideals and convictions. It is this internal conflict among the people of Daybreak that proves to be most compelling.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a novelist or literary critic, but a historian. My own research is on the border region of the Ohio River Valley, and I found many familiar themes and events in Wiegenstein’s novel. His characters, plot, and setting are all rooted in history, and Wiegenstein was obviously influenced by his interest in utopian movements and his love of the Missouri Ozarks, where he grew up. According to Wiegenstein’s website, he first became interested in the utopian societies of the 19th century while he was teaching at Centenary College of Louisiana. He learned that a group of French utopian socialists known as the Icarians passed through New Orleans on their way to Texas to establish a community. The Icarians were one of many utopian societies that created communities in the United States during the 19th century. Among the other societies, the most commonly known include New Harmony, Indiana and Oneida, New York. Some of these groups were based on unique religious prophesies, such as the Shakers, while others were efforts to eliminate poverty and inequality by creating a society where all members work towards a common good. The Icarians were the latter, and Wiegenstein models his fictional society on the Icarians’ ill-fated quest to create an egalitarian society in the United States during the 1850’s. Besides the settlement in Texas, Icarians also created communities in Illinois, Iowa, California, and Missouri. All of these experiments faced considerable financial and ideological challenges, a theme that resonates in the fictional Daybreak community as well.
Two of the main characters, James and Charlotte Turner, represent the connections between the Icarian movement and the fictional community in Wiegenstein’s novel. James Turner, author of the novel Travels to Daybreak, seizes the opportunity to make his dream a reality in the Missouri Ozarks. Charlotte is his wife and a true-believer in the ideas of equality and community. This closely mirrors the Icarians and their leader Étienne Cabet, who published Voyage en Icarie, which served as a model for the Icarian settlements in the United States. The Icarians also struggled with the concept of gender equality, a theme that is nicely addressed in Wiegenstein’s novel through Charlotte. As if the intriguing tale of social experimentation is not enough, Wiegenstein also thoughtfully interweaves the conflict over the expansion and continuation of slavery with this tale of community-building. At the beginning of the novel, Charlotte is living with her parents in Kansas while James travels to the site of the new community. During the violence and chaos of “Bleeding Kansas,” she meets an idealistic young abolitionist from the east, Adam Cabot. Adam narrowly escapes from a gang of pro-slavery settlers and accompanies Charlotte to Daybreak. As the group grows, its members deal with their neighbors’ suspicion and the stark reality that the conflict over the expansion of slavery has penetrated their utopian community, in spite of their attempts to isolate themselves from it.
The summary on the back cover of the book promises all the tense drama of a steamy love triangle, but in truth the book offers so much more. While the main characters provide an intriguing dynamic of passion and idealism, the secondary characters are representative of a variety of backgrounds, opinions, and values. Wiegenstein’s attention to detail and impartial approach to each character nicely conveys the complexity of this historical era. There are no clear heroes or villains. Wiegenstein even includes a few appearances by historical figures. The most intriguing is the inclusion of Sam Hildebrand, an outlaw and Confederate guerrilla who was responsible for the murder of one of Wiegenstein’s ancestors. One can certainly understand the desire to “set the record straight,” so to speak, considering how often Missouri guerrillas and outlaws are depicted as “Robin Hoods” who fight authority for the benefit of the common folk. But Wiegenstein accurately depicts Hildebrand as an ordinary man committing unspeakable acts of violence in the name of retribution. The author resists the urge to depict Hildebrand as a shadowy villain and takes great pains to flesh out Hildebrand’s character, even bordering on sympathy at times. Because of this, the reader gains an evenhanded view of the border war as seen through the eyes of the purportedly neutral residents of Daybreak.
A unique combination of history and fiction make this novel both an informative read and a captivating story of human nature. The novel lends itself to a protracted discussion of the various attributes of dreamers and pragmatists, and the pitfalls of each persona. Additionally, the casual reader will find themselves learning a good deal about American history, and perhaps even gaining more knowledge about 19th century farming techniques than they would have imagined. This all speaks to Wiegenstein’s flawless research and relentless attention to detail. Slant of Light is a welcome addition to the growing bibliography of Civil War novels, and a delightful read for anyone up for a compelling story of imperfect people and their attempt to carve out a perfect society in the Ozarks.
Reviewed by Stephen Rockenbach
Stephen Rockenbach is an Associate Professor of History at Virginia State University. His specialization is military history, and he plays traditional folk music on the banjo.