|Ann McMillan: Angel Trumpet|
Press (Hardcover), ISBN 0670881481
First, the research. The wealth of data available on the period thrills historians, but can daunt a fiction writer. Too little research, and the accuracy police will attack; too much, and the work turns into a historical treatise. For my money, McMillan manages to walk that particular tightrope rather neatly. She builds a rich and credible picture of Civil War Richmond, one compelling even to a reader who overdosed on Lee and Jackson in school and doesn't usually seek out books on the period. Although I suspect that a few erudite souls have already picked up their red pencils to challenge some minute fact or other -- particularly here in Virginia, a state that takes its Confederate heritage very seriously.
Which raises an even greater peril. For many, particularly in the South, the Civil War ended only yesterday. The era's issues still resonate today, particularly slavery and race relations. I'm not sure I'd have the nerve, as McMillan does, to build a book around a suspected slave rebellion and to examine, head on, the complex social and personal issues involved.
The image of tightrope-walking seems inescapable. To the extent that McMillan makes her characters plausible inhabitants of their era, she risks giving them beliefs and attitudes unsympathetic to modern readers. To McMillan's credit, she largely avoids the temptation to idealize or modernize her characters. We watch Narcissa Powers, McMillan's heroine, growing more independent, and perhaps more sympathetic to the abolitionist cause -- but at a believable pace. In Judah Daniel, McMillan creates a strong, admirable black woman, but one with plausible strengths, limitations and attitudes for her time. Cameron Archer, the aristocratic young doctor who involves them in the investigation, is a dedicated, caring surgeon, but beliefs inescapable for an aristocratic southern man of the period skew his understanding of the crime in dangerous ways.
Before I scare anyone away, I should mention that McMillan balances these serious issues with a dash of the romance readers expect from the vanishing antebellum south. The ghost of a woman disappointed in love, a beautiful, headstrong heiress, hidden treasure, a dashing French adventurer, Mesmerism and the half-legendary survivor of a long ago slave rebellion all figure in the mystery, sometimes in surprising ways.
Still, some readers may find Angel Trumpet a difficult book. McMillan's uncompromising, down-to-earth approach to her characters and their era will frustrate both those who view the Confederacy through rose-tinted lenses and those believe that of course they would've freed their slaves and risked their lives to help the Underground Railroad. But for those willing to embrace a more nuanced view of the era, Angel Trumpet provides a complex yet fascinating read.
Donna Andrews is the author of Murder with Peacocks, which won the St. Martin's Press/Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Award in May 1998. Her second book in the Meg and Michael series, Murder with Puffins, will be released this spring.
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