In her Civil War novel, the author addresses the dilemma from the perspective of a Southerner in Tennessee plagued by self-doubts and the overwhelming historical events that remove any element of choice. Believing that his crops, his slaves and his methods can achieve the perfect melding of workers and commerce, skillfully planting his crops to maximize the viability of the land and the humane treatment of slaves, Hugh Hallam temporizes, hoping for enough time to prove his methods sustainable.
With relatively few slaves, all well-treated, Hallam’s wife, Serena, and three children participate in the maintenance of the property, enjoying a marginal prosperity while surrounding slaveholders overplant their cotton for profit, working their slaves hard under the hawk-like gaze of Ross McQuirter. McQuirter’s wife runs the household with an equally brutal touch, ever ready with a whip to take out her ire on the hapless individuals who work in the house.
It is through a particular slave family that Hugh is forced to consider his role as slaveholder. One fateful day, Hugh purchases two slaves: one the whip-scarred French, the other muscle-bound Adam. McQuirter fastens his intentions on Adam’s daughter, Mary Ann, his true motives unclear.
As he has done so many times, Hugh refuses to acknowledge any doubts about the girl’s fate, hoping her father’s proximity as Hugh’s field hand will offer some small comfort to the distressed girl and her anguished father.
As is his way, Hugh assumes he will hold some sway in McQuirter’s treatment of the girl. Thus this small family drama contains the crux of Hallam’s dilemma, his naïve assumption that his awareness will offer some protection to the terrified Mary Ann. While Hugh’s newly purchased slaves find a more viable home with Hallam, the girl becomes part of a brutal man’s household where slaves are controlled by fear and intimidation, surely a terrifying prospect for the innocent Mary Ann.
While the proponents of war yield to their passions for separation from the North and the country marches toward that bloody conflict, events at McQuirter’s spiral out of control, a friendly façade hiding a nightmarish reality behind closed doors.
Hugh clings to his dreams in spite of growing evidence of conflict, both on the adjacent farm and in the country at large. Finally called to fight, Hugh harbors faint hopes that the South will triumph. Battle after detailed battle, Hugh is proven wrong, a victim of his own hubris.
For her part, the beautiful Serena is equally culpable of self-deceit, the couple judging themselves above the petty cruelties of other slaveholders. Such arrogance of their own making, it is difficult to find Hugh and Serena guiltless, more dangerous for their pretensions than the openly brutal McQuirter.
This novel is no Gone with the Wind. Certainly, Hugh is not as clear-headed or honest as Rhett Butler, too late to recognize his own glaring faults. With great attention to the battles that brought the South to its knees, the author balances her characters’ inequities with precise historical detail, a disturbing backdrop for Hugh and Serena’s loss of innocence. Yet the grave injustices of the slave’s lives far outweigh one couple’s belated awakening.