Recent years have brought a resurgent round of literary and cinematic attention to the brutality of slavery, drawing on the rich tradition of the slave narrative and of iconic writers in the lineage of Frederick Douglass, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Charles Johnson and many more. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained preceded the less ultraviolent but more intense 12 Years a Slave, while award-winning fiction arrived with The Good Lord Bird from James McBride and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. Now comes Kevin Powers, highly praised for his award-winning debut novel of the Iraq War, The Yellow Birds. With A Shout in the Ruins, Powers — reared in Virginia and now settled in Austin — weaves a sense of history, introspection and soul-searching into his own confrontation with slavery’s hellish legacy. This book is a welcome addition to what is becoming, with increasing urgency, a national reawakening of the consequences of our violent racist roots.
The generation-spanning novel leaps back and forth across more than a century, from the eve of the Civil War to the 1980s, through intertwining tales of slaves, masters, murderers, victims and their descendants. While the purposely disrupted continuity can be frustrating to follow — I found myself flipping pages often to figure out exactly how some characters were connected — the burden absolutely delivers a payoff. Powers is intent on making us see that wars don’t so much start and stop as they generate and breed. They create entire new species of pain and suffering. He also knows that wars produce heroism, enlightenment and what one character describes as the “miracle” of love — perhaps the only human quality capable of guiding us through dark days of horror and despair that never really disappear. The search for this quality is the overarching frame of the novel.
The storyline emerges through the lives of central characters Rawls and Nurse, who meet while enslaved by different masters in the Virginia countryside. Their paths diverge and reconnect as the third major character, George Seldom, is born and raised amid the torment of the war and its aftermath. As an old man, Seldom returns to the places where he survived as a child and later worked as a free man in the lumber industry, and his quest for memories moves the narrative through its troubled histories. Among them is Seldom’s chance encounter with Lottie, a young diner waitress whose own fate eventually draws in elements of another war, Vietnam. The linkage is symbolic and plausible. Americans often forget we have been at near-constant war since our founding.
Flashbacks to the 1860s, to the sufferings of Rawls and Nurse and the cruelties of the white plantation class that enslaved them, provide the “ruins” from which the “shout” in the title comes. Other characters, such as the war-hardened Yankee reconstruction commander Col. Tom Fitzgerald, make vigorous if brief appearances. Readers may wish for more development of his stone-cold badass encounters with the haughty white ruling class of the Old South, including visiting a plantation owner not eager to accept defeat:
He had seen dozens of them, indolent and puritanical and greedy even for another man’s free clean air to breathe. … He would come into their stately mansions and they would talk, not of their families or of safety, but of abstractions. They would spit at his feet and say their honor was inviolable. They would swear no oath; they would make no acts of contrition. Sometimes Tom found it necessary to correct their misconceptions about what they would or would not do, and he would beat them with his fists until it was hard for him to tell if he was wet with their blood or his own sweat.
Exceptional passages like this make the novel a fine read, and often hold an uncanny relevance to deep divisions in this country today. Consider this rumination by Nurse, after listening to two of her masters discuss what will follow the fall of the South:
Nurse and Rawls listened to the conversation with their chins against their chests as though a certain posture was as good as deafness in the white men’s eyes. … Nurse knew she was in the beating heart of Virginia. … And in Virginia the truth had not mattered for a long time and would not matter for a good long while yet. The only thing that matters here, she thought, is what people are willing to believe. Lots of dead black folk would attest to that if they were still around to do it. There ain’t no telling the kinds of madness people will believe but the truth never seemed to Nurse to stand a chance.
Her prescience has prevailed. In Charlottesville, not so far from the setting of the novel, we saw last year violent conflicts between white supremacists and anti-racist activists. And a president defending the former. Last month, the known universe was dumbfounded to hear Kanye West characterize slavery as having been a “choice.”
The price of losing track of the truth is not just ignorance, but deception. A person can live out a lie. A nation can destroy and murder millions. A Shout in the Ruins joins the effort to remember truths, especially the worst, in order to redeem or at least atone for the past. Which, as Faulkner observed, is always with us.