California Literary Review

A Separate Country by Robert Hicks

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March 16th, 2010 at 2:20 pm

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A Separate Country by Robert Hicks
A Separate Country
by Robert Hicks
Grand Central Publishing, 424 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★½☆

New Orleans Revisited

In the Acknowledgements section of his new historical novel, Robert Hicks writes, “This book began when friends and I left a bachelor party in New Orleans, with Katrina on our heels.” He goes on to describe his subsequent returns to the city, his horror at its devastation, and his desire to find out, “did it really begin with Katrina?” Of course, New Orleans is famous for its parties and parades, its food, music, and relaxed lifestyle. But it is also a city of political corruption, environmental danger, and questionable morality. Hicks captures all this, and the glamour of the fading antebellum South, in A Separate Country.

A Separate Country tells the story of Confederate General John Bell Hood, who moves to New Orleans after the war and marries a Creole debutante. Hood is a haunted man who has been physically marked by the war; he has lost a leg and the use of an arm. In addition, he can only excel militarily, and his life as a businessman is a resounding failure. Nevertheless, he finds love with the young beauty Anna Marie and they have eleven children together. Anna Marie is Hood’s opposite, a beautiful, vivacious woman who delights in the trappings of upper-class Creole life. The story of this unlikely pair unfolds mostly through Anna Marie’s diary and the manuscript of Hood’s memoir. Switching points of view is a daunting undertaking for any writer, and Hicks mostly pulls it off. Hood’s voice is thoroughly believable, and as tortured and broken as a man who orders the mass killings of others should be. Anna Marie’s voice is sadly less developed; whether it is a gender difference or a plot device is debatable, but for the first part of the novel, she is equal parts flighty and bold, and sounds quite a lot like that famous Southern belle with the colorful name. Thankfully, Hicks discovers a richness in her personality later on, saving her from stereotype.

Through Hood’s words, we learn about his early days in the military, and a particularly violent skirmish with a Comanche tribe in the desert wasteland of Texas. By commanding his men to commit what amounts to murder, Hood taps into a blood-lust formerly hidden, as seen in this exchange with a soldier named Sebastien LeMerle:

“We’ll have to take the camp. They’ll fight if we have their women…”

“Then what?”

The question again. I smiled. Why did I smile? Why such joy? I felt every drop of blood cascading through my body…The hard decisions were cruel and necessary, they marked the man who knew the world from the man who lived with gauzy hope for beauty. One could not know good without knowing evil.

All members of the tribe, women and children included, are massacred by Hood’s men, with LeMerle leading the charge. This event shapes Hood’s future in two ways: first, it creates a monster out of LeMerle, who goes on to become an infamous murderer and source of guilt for Hood; and second, it haunts Hood well into the post-war years, when the essential question of his life becomes, “Am I a murderer or am I a good man?”

If Hood’s concern is with the balance between good and evil, Anna Marie’s struggle is with class. Through her narrative, we learn of the strict social system that existed in pre- and post-war New Orleans. The white, Creole upper-class, to which Anna belonged, spoke French, attended parties, kept servants, and married other white Creoles. They looked down on almost everyone, even other whites who moved to the city from other locales. Then there were the other Creoles, the quadroons and octoroons, those of mixed race often so light-skinned they appeared to be Caucasian. These mixed-race Creoles were relegated to very specific roles in society: servant, mistress, or tutor, such as Anna Marie’s friend, the orphan Paschal. Her other close childhood friends include a dwarf named Rintrah and a poor, abused ruffian named Michel. This choice of friends and her eventual marriage to a non-Creole “Americain” show that Anna is no devotee to her class.

But while she strains against the bonds of society, she is still a product of her situation. This can be seen most clearly when, as an amusement, she invites Paschal to a ball held in honor of her cousin, Hennriette. Anna knows that Paschal was romantically linked to Hennriette when he was her music teacher, and she wishes to tease her cousin with a reminder of her past indiscretion. She does so with no consideration for the danger she is putting her friend, a mixed-race man, in. What’s more, she does so with the belief that the romance is something to be ashamed of. Thus, she reveals her ingrained racism and unconscious allegiance to her class.

Things don’t go well for Paschal, or for the Hoods, from then on. As a mirror to his previous engagement with the Comanche, Hood watches powerlessly as Paschal falls victim to LeMerle. Anna is powerless too, silenced by her class, and her refusal to stop the violence is much more maddening. As penance for their failure to help, the Hoods use what’s left of their money to help poor blacks escape yellow fever.

Here, class raises its head once again. In the summer, the city would become a miasma of sickness, and “the fever” would kill off huge portions of the poorer population. Rich whites like Anna Marie’s family could afford to move away for the summer, thus keeping their families safe. Together with Rintrah and Michel (now Father Mike), the Hoods move a large number of the city’s African Americans to a fish farm along the river. When they return to the city, the Hoods are just as poor as the people they saved.

And happy. The next year is the happiest for the Hood family, despite the fact that they have been disgraced and cast out by their former peers. Sick with yellow fever and at the end of her short life, Anna Marie muses on this surprising fact:

I could be happy because I did not miss who I had been. I did not miss the balls and the dresses and the amusements, but most of all I did not miss the girl…She was a traitor to her class, to her people, and this filled her with excitement. She was her own creation, now.

But there’s a third voice to be found in this novel, and it is arguably the most intriguing. Eli Griffin travels to New Orleans to kill the man who caused the deaths of his family. In his mind, Hood is, without question, a murderer: “I seen the dead, I seen a whole lot of the dead. Hood had fixed it so I would never quit seeing the dead, and not just the frozen on that battlefield, piled atop each other, but also the face of my sister dead in her bed.” He has every reason to want to see Hood the same way. However, that Eli can’t kill when he gets the chance is a testament to his own good nature. Hood banks on this when he gives Griffin his memoir, setting the young man on a quest of sorts for the truth hidden between the lines. Griffin’s narrative is written in an easy dialogue and is refreshingly devoid of Anna Marie’s sentimentality or Hood’s self-awareness. While he dominates the book at the end, moving the plot along, solving mysteries, and discovering secrets neither Hood nor Anna knew, he is woefully absent in the first part. Because Griffin’s perspective is natural and egoless, this absence is strongly felt; nevertheless, his words act as a refreshing balance to Hood and Anna Marie.

Healing comes, finally, not to Hood or Anna Marie, but to Eli. Of the effects of the war, Eli says, “It was not innocence I had lost. Lost that later. What I lost was any expectation of good and right, any faith that I could know these things anymore.” But there is good in Eli still, despite the horrors he witnessed, and he proves this by defending the Hoods, protecting their words, and searching relentlessly for the truth. This is not a book about the devastation of a city, despite Hicks’s initial inspiration. This is a story of the effects of war on the psyche of Man. This is a story of the stifling evils of class and racism. And finally, this is a story of redemption, which comes to the one who desires or expects it least.

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