A review of Edenland by Wallace King

Reviewed by Jack Messenger

by Wallace King
Lake Union Publishing
Paperback: 464 pages, May 24, 2016, ISBN-13: 978-1503934948

Edenland is the evocative title of an evocative novel set in the early days of the US Civil War. Its story plunges us into the Great Dismal Swamp that straddles Virginia and North Carolina, and never quite allows us to escape the treacherous waters that threaten to engulf its protagonists.

The Great Dismal and other swamps were places where runaway slaves could hide from their pursuers. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s second novel, after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). Thus, the literary and historical sources of Edenland flow across the years in currents swift, deep and wide.

In Edenland, Bledsoe is a runaway slave determined to fight in ‘Lincoln’s army’, Alice a penniless Irish indentured servant. Both have fled their captors and are intent on escaping from the South. Their stories converge and diverge as they make their way northwards, encountering the chaos and horrors of the war, the comforts and dangers of the natural environment and, above all, the moral terrors of institutionalized slavery.

Wallace King is excellent at evoking nature, especially the fine-grained details that capture characters’ eyes when they themselves are suffering:

When he opened his eyes he was blinded by the sun … He was lying in smashed ferns only inches from sluggish water that glinted metallic where the light broke through the trees. Above his head was a canopy of green. The springtime-opened leaves of slender cedars, junipers, and swamp oak fluttered like iridescent wings. Great cypress trees stood big trunked, their wild tangled roots home to otters and snakes. Birds told each other things, some sang. A shimmering damselfly flitted by the boy’s face. He watched it alight on the sunny side of a pawpaw tree, where it was swiftly picked off by a warbler. The bird flew with its prize into the treetops, a bright yellow dash. Close by, something splashed in the bark-coloured water.

We learn of the firing on Fort Sumter via newspaper headlines seen by Bledsoe, who learned to read in secret and has instant recall of articles he read on the sly in his ‘master’s’ Encyclopedia Britannica. At first, Alice is a hindrance, a weight around his neck. Her ignorance of wider events, her vanity and self-obsession slow him down and threaten their safety. Gradually, however, she reveals a capacity to grow and to feel, plus important knowledge of the healing properties of plants and the natural world that proves crucial (she can deliver a child and knows how to skin a rabbit). Both of them are changed by the other; both of them discover themselves in the other.

As the title suggests, Bledsoe and Alice are heading for a destination that may or may not exist – more myth, memory or aspiration than it is a historical reality. An extended idylic interlude far from human habitation invokes an Edenland that can only be discovered in prelapsarian isolation. Society is sick with moral corruption, its rampant disease symbolized by ravening dogs and a perverted sense of justice.

When they are obliged to renew their journey, Bledsoe and Alice encounter bloody history by way of Norfolk, Virginia, Bull Run and Fort Monroe. Interestingly, they are both forced to play-act in order to survive. Indeed, the novel shows how everyone – slave and slaveholder alike – performs in some fashion in order to stave off the full implications of the peculiar institution. Of course, far more was at stake for the slave than for the free, and our sympathies are entirely with the oppressed, yet the oppressor, too, is made misshapen by the illogicality of the evil he or she represents and perpetuates. It is almost incomprehensible how so many slaveholders believed themselves beloved by their ‘servants’, and how they could be surprised and hurt when their slaves turned against them.

‘God is a bastard,’ declares Tirzah Brennan, who is one of the most memorable characters in Edenland. Tirzah is positively Dickensian in the depths of her anguish, hatred and cruelty, a distant cousin to the thwarted Miss Havisham in Great Expectations (1861), but with none of her redeeming qualities. It is a resonant line, truer than Tirzah suspects. People have a habit of creating God in their own image; certainly, the slaveholding South justified itself in terms of Christianized racial theory that was complete nonsense, and allowed slaveholders to hide behind religious ideology, to think well of themselves even as they treated the Other with unspeakable cruelty. Tirzah is no exception: she only comes to recognize the true nature of the God she has created when she herself suffers beyond endurance and loses everything.

Edenland is very good indeed at evoking this inner tension – the danger lurking beneath the gentility and manners of  southern slaveholders, whose sentiments can turn on a dime, whose rage and cruelty can be unleashed at the slightest challenge to racial stereotypes. Bledsoe and Alice cannot trust anyone because no one can be relied upon to understand truths that are beyond their capacity to comprehend. Recurring imagery of drowning conveys much of this tide of terror – literal drowning in swamp or river; nightmares of drowning dreamed by Bledsoe and Alice.

While Edenland could be said to have too much plot and to be too episodic, so that there are few genuine surprises – one knows, more or less, where it is going and how it will get there – nevertheless, I am glad to have read it and I admire its achievement. Readers looking for an excellent story in a vital historical setting will, I am sure, find it gripping and illuminating.

About the reviewer: Jack Messenger is a UK-based writer and reviewer of literary fiction, who also blogs about writing, film and anything else that takes his fancy. He copyedit Interventions, the International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, and is currently a submissions reader for Red Line, an online literary journal. His novel, The Long Voyage Home, is doing the rounds of agents and publishers. He can be found at his blog http://jackmessenger.co.uk/, which can also take readers to all the usual social media places where he is keen to be followed and liked.