Sunday, May 3, 2015

Book Review: September, September by Shelby Foote

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It's always interesting to me what people started as compared to what they're known for.

Shelby Foote began his literary career a a novelist in 1949 with the publication of Tournament. In 1952, with the success of his historical fiction novel Shiloh, Random House approached Mr. Foote and asked him to write a brief history of the Civil War.

Foote thought about it and came to the conclusion that he could not give the war such a quick-and-easy treatment. After a few talks with his publisher, Foote began working on what eventually became his magnum opus: a three-volume, 1.2 million world trilogy called The Civil War: A Narrative.

Foote spent twenty years of his life on the project. During this time, he didn't write any fiction. September, September was published in 1978. Despite writing several more novels before his death, Foote is best remembered as a frequent guest on Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War.

Yes, I posted my own photo of the book because Google Images was useless.

September, September is a historical novel set in Memphis, 1957. The central conflict revolves around three white people: Pudjo, a professional gambler, Rufus, a disgraced Marine, and his girlfriend Reeny. Together, they plan to get rich by kidnapping the son of a wealthy black man, Ebenezer Kinship, and use the political fallout of the ongoing Little Rock Crisis to cover their tracks.

It sounds like your typical thriller, right? But the kidnapping is just the novel's plot. The Kinship family has been doing just fine under the watchful yet firm eye of its patriarch, Theodore Wiggins (Ebenezer's father-in-law). When Ebenezer's son get's snatched, the family relations are strained and Foote uses it as a great way to explore the changing philosophy of the Civil Rights movement.

Theodore represents the old, Booker T. Washington school of thought, the idea that blacks could "go along to get along" in a white man's world. Ebenezer on the other hand, is galvanized by his son's kidnapping and wants to destroy the segregationist social order that he grew up with. By the end of the novel, Theodore realizes that his world is dying along with his generation.

The kidnappers have their own problems to deal with. Reeny wants a lover who won't abuse her like the other men in her past, and starts gravitating towards Pudjo when Rufus gets too unstable. To make matters worse, she develops a maternal attachment to the hostage. A love triangle forms that puts the whole plan in danger. When Rufus finds out that Reeny is leaving, he betrays his accomplices and steals their share of the ransom money.

Gain and loss is a running theme in the book. The Kinships get their son back (and the money) but they've lost the innocence they once had, and realize for the first time just how much the world is against them. Rufus gives up his girl and makes off with the money, only to be stopped at a police roadblock where they're searching for two bank robbers. Pudjo and Reeny get away undetected and plan to start a new life together, but with little money.

Interesting peak at the manuscript binding.

Never seen this before. These tags help the casual reader identify which character is speaking in a given chapter.

The novel has a wonderful cast of diverse characters and plenty of historical detail, yet, not so much that you think you're reading a textbook. Foote lived in Memphis for most of his life, and his talents as a historian aided in presenting just enough to keep the reader mindful of the fact that this is a 1950s story. The descriptions of the climate and the city itself are some of the most beautiful, and I could imagine Foote reading it aloud.

It's been reviewed favorably enough online, but it's a little-known book. If you're a fan of Foote's historical writings, I recommend adding this to the library.

Power to the pen!

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