There is a particularly vein of literature that I find both unsettling and fascinating. Donald Ray Pollock, Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Cormac McCarthy are modern writers who successfully mine that vein (impoverished, desperate, violent, and real). I now consider Tom Franklin to be one of them. In his debut novel (yes, debut, though he has since written a few others) he has produced an outstanding fictionalized account of the very real, if very brief Mitcham Beat war (late 1898). Although I did not verify this, common sense indicates that Franklin, a resident of the area, likely drew – rather successfully – from local history as the source for his first novel.
In 1897, an aspiring politician is mysteriously murdered in the rural area of Alabama known as Mitcham Beat. His outraged friends — mostly poor cotton farmers — form a secret society, Hell-at-the-Breech, to punish the townspeople they believe responsible. The hooded members wage a bloody year-long campaign of terror that culminates in a massacre where the innocent suffer alongside the guilty. Caught in the maelstrom of the Mitcham war are four people: the aging sheriff sympathetic to both sides; the widowed midwife who delivered nearly every member of Hell-at-the-Breech; a ruthless detective who wages his own war against the gang; and a young store clerk who harbors a terrible secret. (Goodreads)
The latter half of the 1800’s is an era that fascinates me. This particular story pits the wealthy residents of Grove Hill against the dirt poor residents of Mitcham Beat (though given this is the deep south in the 1800’s, members of both groups are racist). Straddling the fence is the no nonsense, aging Sheriff Waite. Though a prominent resident of Grove Hill, he sympathizes with the plight of the downtrodden – as it’s the wealthy store owners who are driving sown the price and profits of cotton.
Particularly in America, it’s hard not to take this novel and compare it to the state of affairs today. Wars, class inequality, and discrimination are still a prominent feature of society. I think there is a tendency to read a novel like this and claim, while wearing rose colored glasses (a necessary psychological coping mechanism), that we’ve come so far. When in reality the same problems are parading around, simply dressed a bit differently. I’d like to believe this occurred to the author as well and the last line strongly indicates it might have.
His last waking thought a wish that the future would let him hold a baby boy named Billy Waite, who would grow to manhood and obey and endure the laws of man, who could survive the world the world was becoming.
Franklin depiction of life in the deep south is not for the faint of heart. Though is doesn’t approach the violence in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, there is very much a similar feel. Rampant poverty and hopelessness pervade the novel, creating a sense of desperation. The world the characters inhabit is unforgiving and relentless. While the atmosphere of Franklin’s novel is evocative of early McCarthy, his style of prose is his own – simple, stalwart, memorable.
But what would daylight offer except the illusion of understanding? At least in darkness you were spared the pretending.
If this was Franklin’s fifth book, I don’t think it would be as impressive, but for a first effort it is remarkable. It’s flawed, but pleasantly so (realistically it diminishes the prominence a rather unpleasant word enjoyed during that time frame in American history). Hell at the Breech is the best historical fiction I’ve read recently, I’m only sad it took me ten years to find it.
For those that love their fiction gritty and depressing, Hell at the Breech will be fully satisfying (perhaps more so if read in winter, if days are dreary, I want to read equivalent literature). I would also highly recommend it for those who like their historical fiction to lack the love angle so prominent in the genre. Franklin does not romanticize impoverished rural life in the least and though he handles it well, it can still be abrasive. If you choose to read this wonderful novel, I hope you’re not fond of puppies or humanity – both reach bitter conclusions.
Food is not prominent in the novel, in fact the most prominent thing consumed is whiskey – in copious amounts. I can’t decide if this recipe for Whiskey Apple Soda would be delicious or disgusting. I’m leaning towards the latter (I tend to drink whiskey neat), but I’d be willing to try it.