Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Book Write-Up: All Things New, by Lynn Austin

Lynn Austin.  All Things New.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2012.

I read Lynn Austin’s trilogy about the American Civil War, so I decided also to read her book about the Reconstruction Period.  This book is All Things New.  There are a number of characters in this book, but here are the main ones, or, at least, the ones whom I found most compelling:

Eugenia Weatherly: Eugenia is the matriarch of her Southern plantation, and she has difficulty adjusting to the changes that the Civil War has brought.  She wants to return things to the way that they were before the Civil War, with the aristocracy, the wealth, the lavish parties, and the servants.  She is rather haughty, class-conscious, racist, and nagging, so I enjoyed the scenes in which her servant, Lizzie, got a bit mouthy with her, something Lizzie would never have done in the days of slavery.  But Eugenia can be a caring person.  She is there for her struggling friend, and she cares for her daughters, Josephine and Mary.  Eugenia wants her daughters to find lifelong security in marriages with aristocratic husbands, even though that is not really what her daughter Josephine wants to do.  Eugenia is also concerned that some of Josephine’s radical views about race and equality may alienate Josephine from the Southern community, whose support the family needs in these rough times.  While Eugenia appears to be prim and proper, however, she has not always followed the conventional path in her own life.  Moreover, her late husband’s kindness to the slaves instilled in her a certain moral code about how to treat slaves, even if she did not regard the slaves as her equals.  Consequently, she is appalled by what her son Daniel is doing to the freed slaves and the Freedmen’s Bureau, and there is a possibility that she can change her attitudes in a progressive direction.

Josephine Weatherly: Josephine is one of Eugenia’s daughters.  Unlike her sister Mary, Josephine is a bit of a misfit.  She is plain and socially-awkward.  She often withdraws from conversation, yet she manages to find her voice.  To the dismay of her mother, Josephine gets to know one of the slaves, Lizzie, and Josephine does work that her mother considers to be too menial for her social position.  Josephine has doubts about God on account of the ills that her family is suffering after the Civil War.

Daniel Weatherly: Daniel is the younger son of Eugenia, and he is returning from war.  His older brother died in war, and the older brother was the one who was expected to take over the plantation.  Daniel is now expected to be the man of the house, but he does not have much training for it.  Like his mother, Daniel misses the old days.  He also resents the continued Northern interference in the South.  With his friends, Daniel attacks freed slaves who hide in the woods (those woods are his property), organizes nightly patrols to keep African-Americans off the streets at nights, favors a vagrancy law to jail African-Americans who cannot demonstrate that they have gainful employment, and burns down the school for African-American children and the Freedman’s Bureau.  Daniel believes that he is keeping his and other white families safe from freed slaves, whom he fears might seek revenge.  And he does not trust the Freedman’s Bureau to look out for his family’s best interests.

Alexander Chandler: Alexander is from the North and runs the local Freedman’s Bureau.  The goal of the Freedman’s Bureau is to help the South rebuild after the war.  It provides food, and also guidance on how the ex-slaves can find gainful employment through sharecropping—-the slaves would farm on plantations and be able to keep some of the crop for themselves, while the rest of the crop goes to the plantation owners.  Alexander is a Christian, specifically a Quaker, and he has religious discussions with Josephine, encouraging her to look at the bright side and to be honest with God about her anger.  He feels guilty that he betrayed his Quaker upbringing by fighting in the Civil War, and he thinks that the war was a disaster for both sides, even the North, which won.  Still, he believes that the Civil War was somehow part of God’s plan to free the slaves and to liberate women.  Alexander is cheerful, caring, and pleasant to everyone, even though he is widely rejected, especially by the white aristocracy.

Dr. Hunter: Dr. Hunter is a Southern doctor and friend of the Weatherlys.  He mainly treats white people, even though he has occasionally treated African-Americans who have needed help.  He has feelings for Eugenia, and Eugenia develops feelings for him in the course of the book, even though she had long regarded him as her social inferior.  Dr. Hunter’s mother was part of the aristocracy but left that life to marry a doctor for love.  Dr. Hunter has progressive ideas.  He believes that the South should embrace change rather than fighting it, and he thinks that the South is suffering because it enslaved an entire group of people and profited from their free labor.  He is not outspoken about these beliefs in public, however, for he is rather meek, even when he disagrees with people, and he usually says what he thinks in private conversations.

Priscilla Blake: Priscilla is a friend of Eugenia and is the matriarch of her own plantation, which was suffering before she agreed to sign a Freedman Bureau contract.  After she did that, her plantation was thriving.  Priscilla enjoys the company of Josephine, who helps her around the house and takes care of Priscilla’s bitter son, Harrison.

Harrison Blake: Harrison has returned from war crippled, and he is bitter because he feels helpless.  He also feels guilty about something that he did to a slave years earlier.  Josephine cannot stand him, but she challenges him to think of other people (like his mother), and also to become a positive influence on Daniel and his friends, who respect Harrison because he commanded them in the Civil War.

Lizzie: Lizzie is a freed slave.  For a while, she takes on most of the load because the other slaves have run off.  Lizzie is annoyed by Eugenia’s continual nagging, especially that bell that Eugenia rings to summon Lizzie!  She wants a life in which her family can support itself and be free.  Lizzie has a beautiful daughter, Rozelle, who is half-white, and she is afraid when she sees Daniel talking with Rozelle.  Lizzie is hardworking, defiant, and fiercely protective of her husband Otis, her sons, and Rozelle.

Otis: Otis is one of Eugenia’s slaves.  He is strong and easygoing, and he is a comforting presence to Lizzie.  Otis loves Rozelle as a daughter, even though she is not his daughter biologically.  Otis is a Christian.

I was hoping for more information about how the doctor arrived at his progressive ideas,  since one wonders what would lead a person to question the beliefs of the environment around him.  Maybe his mother’s defiance of convention was what encouraged him to do so.  Moreover, it seems to me that the more devout Christians in the book are progressive and egalitarian (in terms of race and gender), and I doubt that things always lined up that way in those times, since there were plenty of religious people who were socially regressive in their attitudes.  Overall, however, this is an excellent book.

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