‘A Shout in the Ruins,’ by Kevin Powers
Book Review by DAVID W. BLIGHT July 12, 2018
In Kevin Powers’ haunting second novel, “A Shout in the Ruins,” the Civil War and the destruction of slavery are a slow, multigenerational earthquake. The book sizzles with authentic tragedy, realism and unreconciled memory. There is no place for glory in this novel, which reveals black and white Southerners along the Virginia-North Carolina border region in two distinct time periods (the 1860s and 1950s-80s) living as though the past is never over.
Time and memory are threatening subjects in this story. And “truth,” also so illusive, dangerous, even deadly, is always at stake. In this fiction about the awful ruins caused by the companion forces of war and slavery, the past is omnipresent even when it cannot be spoken or known. Everyone bears its weight. And yet a few people, black and white, are able to live through the weight of history even as it is all but impossible to live with it. Powers has likely read his William Faulkner and his Robert Penn Warren.
Powers knows something of the burdens of Southern history. In this book, the Old South falls, but not with any romance, and it rises again, Powers writes, “in an ink of blood and ash.” Violence and human exploitation without clear purpose were the themes of Powers’ first novel, “The Yellow Birds,” an equally withering tale of Americans in the Iraq War. He writes about war with a sure hand; his characters are vivid, their sufferings as well as terrible flaws engrossing.
Powers was born and raised in Richmond, Va. — ground zero of Civil War memory — and his story takes place largely in and around a plantation called Beauvais, south of the Confederate capital. Approximately 10 characters are woven into this tight story, which takes place in two time frames nearly 90 years apart. The heart of the tale can be seen as a very young slave woman named Nurse gives birth to a son named George in an amputation tent at Chimborazo Hospital high on the bluff in Richmond in April 1863. Nurse has been working in that environment, with its “blood-soaked floor,” the sound of the “grind of a saw on bone,” and limbs “tossed to the wooden floor with a thump and a small splatter of blood.”
Powers writes lyrically about the refuses of war and the tyranny at the dark heart of slavery: “George entered the world to a chorus of anguished voices, in a room lit by a single sputtering candle that sent its light weakly toward the canvas walls. And in that room Nurse quietly wept, and the bawling child she tightly held added his new voice to the chorus as the sun breached the treetops to the east.”
The novel is so much about how or if George will ever find a voice for who he really was and how he came into the world. If the Civil War birthed a new nation for America, this story is about how it also birthed America’s new racial dilemmas, its historical amnesia and its deadly desires to look away from a past often too awful to know.
George’s father, although George would never know it, was the horrid Anthony Levallois, owner of Beauvais, and a hyper-capitalist, amoral, sexual predator and evil incarnate slavemaster. Nurse and her lover, Rawls, were originally owned by a man named Bob Reid and his daughter Emily. Although Reid is a somewhat hapless slave owner, he maims Rawls’ feet because of his propensity to run away in search of Nurse.
Levallois, who may remind readers of Toni Morrison’s Schoolteacher in “Beloved,” is a cold-blooded murderer when necessary and always a calculated tyrant; he kills an Indian ferryboat pilot who tries to help Rawls stay hidden.
When the war comes, Reid enlists with vigor but is grotesquely wounded at the battle of Mechanicsville, Va., losing an arm and suffering a crushed leg in the mud. He only barely survives, an emasculated, broken white man with no power. Levallois destroys Reid’s plantation and forces Emily into marrying him to give him status; she becomes the first white woman he had ever slept with. Many forms of slavery seethe out of Virginia’s bloody soil. Powers insists that everyone in the story is enslaved to slavery and the war it spawned.
The story sometimes jarringly flashes forward and back between centuries as we meet a lonely, disoriented George in the Jim Crow 1950s. At 90, George is still trying to determine who he is and where he came from. A lonely white woman named Lottie, working at a country diner, takes George under her wing in a rural section of eastern North Carolina and tries to help him find the cabin where he was abandoned at age 3.
In snippets along the way, we learn that Nurse and Rawls somehow escaped at the end of the war from a burning Beauvais after they, as well as Reid, wreaked bloody revenge on archvillain Levallois. They turned George over to a half-starved Confederate officer who protected him and delivered him to a poor white woman who took him in and raised him. Nurse and Rawls left George with a note reading: “1866, my name is George. I’m nearly three years old. Look after me. I now belong to you.”
The only genuine love in this book is between two couples — Nurse and Rauls, who are deeply devoted despite all possible odds, and Lottie with her 10-years-younger mate, Billy, a troubled Vietnam veteran, madly in love with her, who nurses her as she dies of breast cancer.
The ending of the book provides some resolution for old George, and the reader finds many threads and characters woven together by fate, interracial unions and embittered history. It is everyone’s history, even when it cannot be faced. Inside Nurse’s thoughts and George’s conversations with Lottie emerge a wisdom about American memory.
“In Virginia the truth had not mattered for a long time,” muses Nurse as she struggles to imagine if there is anything to believe in. “The only thing that matters here ... is what people are willing to believe. Lots of dead black folk would attest to that. … There ain’t no telling the kinds of madness people will believe.” As George yearns for knowledge and truth about his past, Lottie cautions him: “I think maybe sometimes a thing is so true its being said don’t make a difference at all.”
And in yet another fascinating, if underdeveloped, subplot near the end of the story, a young, ruthless Union officer and Freedmen’s Bureau agent named Thomas Jefferson Fitzgerald (from Massachusetts, of course) who has killed and hanged many Confederates has a starkly honest conversation with Levallois, who still thinks, wrongly, that he can game the system of Reconstruction.
Review in the San Francisco Chronicle: https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/A-Shout-in-the-Ruins-by-Kevin-Powers-13070463.php#photo-15857658