Every now and then I have the pleasure of stumbling on a book that surprises me and confounds me. The one book that stands out among the heap is Taylor Branch’s Parting the Waters: America During the King Years, the first tome in his Pulitzer Prize-winning trilogy that chronicled the key episodes of the modern Civil Rights movement. The power – and surprise – of Branch’s writing is his ability to make the reader question himself and understand that in different times we can only pray that we might have done things as we believe that we would have the courage to do them today. I’ve rediscovered that uncomfortable thrill once again in Patriot’s Reward, an historical novel by Stephen Clarkson scheduled for sale by major booksellers this May.
As I was looking for some good historical accounts of New England in anticipation of some travel there, I was in for a number of surprises when my search led me in a roundabout way to Patriot’s Reward. The first surprise was the author himself who, as it turns out, was a man I worked for almost two decades ago in Washington, DC. The second surprise was his subject: the account of Will Clarkson, a real life slave that the author discovered in 2002 was owned by his ancestors. I was actually hoping to find something that covered more recent history -- from the mid-20th century on – something that I assumed would be more revealing about New England today. But who could resist taking such a detour?
Here, in the state where we’ve made peace with the fact that Strom Thurmond had a black daughter and his family owned Al Sharpton’s ancestors, the concept of learning that your relatives owned a human might not seem shocking. But how did Clarkson, a son of New Hampshire who went to the same prep school and college as both Presidents Bush, grapple with such news? I couldn’t ask Clarkson directly, not knowing where to contact him nowadays, but I did manage to score a copy of the book from his publisher. Since I received my copy of Patriot’s Reward there have been numerous news stories that make the story resonate with relevance to our world today. Whether it’s the pros and cons of the South Carolina legislature issuing an apology for slavery or the reaction to shock jock Don Imus calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy-headed ho’s,” America seems condemned to perpetually struggle with a past that is so deeply connected to our identity that it’s practically part of our DNA.
The biggest surprise of Patriot’s Reward begins to reveal itself on the cover. The slave account we’re asked to consider has some unconventional temporal and geographical anchors. Instead of a Civil War era account set in the South, Clarkson’s novel is inspired by mid-eighteenth century records uncovered in Portsmouth, NH. Rather than dwelling on the peculiarity of these anchors, Clarkson liberates his narrative by dealing with his subject directly and matter-of-factly.
Will Clarkson, the protagonist, is compelling only partly because his story speaks to themes and events we all deal with today here in America. His story is fascinating because it reveals the transcendent nature of America’s dysfunctional Slavery Complex and it speaks to the universal scope of the ideological internal conflict we struggle with, collectively and as individuals. In the end, the complex and nuanced issues that Stephen Clarkson tackles as a subtle subtext for his novel are bound by neither time nor geography. Slavery – and its enduring legacy – is an indelibly American institution. It’s not a regional peculiarity and it’s far from being relegated to the dustbin of history.
As we follow the travels and thoughts of Will Clarkson, there is an initial temptation to draw comparisons to Roots. After all, the story begins with the capture of a young man in Africa. As Will Clarkson strategically and relentlessly plots his freedom, the similarity dissipates. Instead, when Clarkson begins his quest for freedom in earnest by fighting for the colonists in Canada and New England, the novel reads more like a fictionalized version of Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, in which Ambrose recreated the trials and tribulations of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Patriot’s Reward connects with readers because it’s unburdened by the baggage of a Civil War theme and, in fact, in terms of time, it takes us closer to the planting of the first seeds of racial conflict we continue to face today. Still, as early as it was in our American history, Clarkson reveals a coastal New Hampshire community already confused, conflicted and pulled in many directions over the institution of slavery. The story is also approachable because it’s not a regional indictment of the Deep South...as this story is situated in New England. But, surprisingly, this is not a New England story either. By taking a stereotypical Southern story and telling it in New Hampshire, Clarkson delivers an American story.
As if to underscore how deeply slavery is embedded in the American psyche, the author identifies with his non-blood relative, Will, so well that I can almost hear his voice when reading Will’s dialogue. That’s not to say that Clarkson uses the novel to apologize for his family’s ownership of Will. There are as many attitudes toward slavery as there are various members of the Clarkson clan depicted in Patriot’s Reward.
The real power of Patriot’s Reward is fueled by the fact that Stephen Clarkson doesn’t force feed any particular message to the reader as he unveils some discomforting realities about the problem of race – and freedom – in America. Instead, we’re left to ask ourselves those questions we can never truly answer. And Clarkson leaves us with a haunting sense that perhaps, today, as we send off Americans to fight for a freedom that won’t be theirs to enjoy, we are making decisions that our descendants will judge us by.
This review published by The Upstate Beat review, April 10, 2007
Link to original article: www.metrobeat.net/gbase/Expedite/Content?oid=oid%3A4412
Jim Hennigan is a corporate lawyer living in Mauldin and a lifelong Republican
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