Book review by Thomas Uskali
In his richly evocative novel, Secessia, Kent Wascom takes readers to the earliest months of New Orleans’ occupation by Union military forces during the Civil War. In 1862, this new order imposed on the city heightened delineations of race, class and gender — all of which are explored through distinctive characters who move nimbly through Wascom’s intricate plot.
The novel’s prologue is set in 1844 at a Carnival ball, where Elise Durel, a light-skinned Creole woman with black Dominican heritage, is rescued by Emile Sabatier from an attempted rape. She is 14, he is 17 and smitten. When Elise’s racial background becomes known, her marital prospects fade, Emile flees to Paris and marries a well-born woman. But Emile enacts a stealthy plan: he brokers a match for Elise with the brutal widower Angel Woolsack and they have a son, Joseph.
In 1862, Joseph is 12 years old. Elise and Angel’s neighbor in the French Quarter takes in Marina, a young, patrician Cuban girl. She had spent weeks on Ship Island off the Mississippi coast on her journey, and while there came to know several of the Union soldiers who now occupy the city. They had even performed impromptu versions of Shakespeare’s The Tempest on the island, and the author comments: “Her father was not so lucky as Prospero; he did not survive to exhort his daughter’s memory, to instruct her on what to make of a castaway existence and life after the storm.” Joseph and Marina flirt at every opportunity — it’s a playful, mildly dangerous subplot that is handled with skill and wit.
For his 12th birthday, Angel gives Joseph a gun (one of many from his collection); Angel and Elise have a huge argument about it, and while she is in his study, Angel shoots himself. Joseph and his mother are whisked off, given heavy doses of morphine and the household servants leave him writhing in his office for hours before they call Dr. Emile Sabatier, who pronounces him dead.
Sabatier then becomes Joseph’s guardian, and he begins an affair with Elise, his long-lost love. But there is little romance, just raw sexual desire and an aura of menace. At the same time, Joseph begins reading his late father’s diary, an account of the violence he perpetrated over the years. He learns of his father’s first wife, another child, and of his mother’s mixed racial heritage. For Joseph, reading becomes his means “to order and reconstruct” his life.
Joseph feels betrayed by his mother, and Elise finds herself at Sabatier’s mercy. In the middle of this, she is arrested for anti-Union activities and sent to Ship Island for several months — to the same prison camp where young Marina had stayed. The time is transformative for her: Elise is aware of the stories of “tragic mulattoes,” but she believes “that there might be another way.” She resolves, “When the counter comes, she won’t be tallied alongside those who quit and withered.” In the novel’s final chapters, Elise sets a new path for herself, aligning circumstances in her favor as best she can.
One of Secessia’s most intriguing characters is Union Army General Benjamin Butler, first seen as he sails up the Mississippi toward New Orleans. He muses on advice he heard long ago: “Beware torrid climates and military misadventure.”
Nearing the city, his assessment continues: “The only industries these people have mastered are ineptitude and destruction. He smells the goods they were foolish enough to burn, the coal smoke of engines spiriting banks’ specie from the city, the cartwheel creak as bullion is secreted to foreign consulates. He will right it like a saber.”
Butler knows he is an impossible position. From his offices at the newly-built Custom House and at the St. Charles Hotel, he senses nothing but the city’s aggression against him. Soon after his arrival, Union Admiral Farragut is hit with a chamber pot’s contents as he walks through town. Butler counters ongoing “acts of disrespect” with his own sly techniques to bring the city (particularly its women) under control. He writes General Order Number 28, which includes the following: “… when any female shall, by word, gesture, or movement, insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States, she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her trade.”
To improve the city’s hygiene, Butler enlists Emile Sabatier to help devise a plan to clean up the streets, to bring cholera and yellow fever under control. Sabatier’s obsessive nature is perfect for the task: he orders stray animals to be poisoned, gutters swept and drainage canals filled with waste to be carried out into Lake Pontchartrain. Sabatier even comes up with his own scientific description of Union occupation — he calls it “Cyanosis,” explaining, “In medicine, the bluing of the skin as a result of the mixing of venous and arterial bloods; in New Orleans, invasion, occupation, capitulation.” He believes that “he will adapt to the disease, not struggle like these fools.”
Wascom conveys a strong sense of the stakes involved for each of his characters, and for the city itself. Grand and petty concerns slide alongside each other, as they do in real life. The separate voices of the narrative (each chapter takes a character’s point of view) illustrate and underscore the city’s divisions. The author has done his research — the novel is an immersive look into another era. Those familiar with New Orleans will be rewarded with what sometimes feels like a walking tour through time.
The language of Secessia is borderline florid, combined with what one might call the “poetic density” of some passages. At times it can be overwhelming. In the earliest pages, one finds this representative sentence: “She felt her teeth, her pearled salvation, growing long and sharp as cockspurs, and she sank them into the flesh of the boy whose screams now form her train.” There is an apparent attempt to create what sounds like “old fashioned” diction: interesting, laudable, and somewhat awkward. Fortunately, the chapters are short, lending a crisp, episodic feel to the work as a whole.
Secessia brings to mind Rien Fertel’s Imagining the Creole City (2014), reviewed in the Summer 2015 issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas. It is a fascinating, scholarly look at New Orleans’ complicated relationship with race and class. Josh Russell’s novel Yellow Jack (1999) is another intriguing glimpse of New Orleans in the 1840s. The city is called a “miniature Paris,” yellow fever is rampant, and the daguerreotype is the latest craze. Russell’s look at carefully articulated racial codes is a fitting complement to Secessia.
At one point, Elise ponders New Orleans’ situation: “They are not starving, as the people in do in Vicksburg; the city’s not in ruins like so many towns; there are no volleys or thundering cannons. Yet our lives may be crazed and dismembered by other means than violence. Means subtler and more insidious.”
On this tenth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall and the collapse of our levee system, Wascom’s description of New Orleans in the 19th century seems all the more vivid. In the 1860s, low-lying areas were far more susceptible to water and weather than now, but we have learned to be wary.
Thomas Uskali, a New Orleans-based teacher, writer and actor, also reviews books for the Mobile (Ala.) Register.