Source: Personal Copy
Sweetsmoke is a tobacco plantation in Virginia during the civil war. Owned by Hoke Howard, and home to many slaves including Cassius Howard. The story is primarily told from the point of view of Cassius. A young man who grew up on Sweetsmoke, as an infant named by his master and eventually became Hoke's favourite at Sweetsmoke. Cassius works as the plantation carpenter and is envied by the field hands for his larger cabin and the small leniencies his job allows. Hoke Howard is a third generation plantation owner and believed to be a fair master. The novel begins with the death of Emoline Justine a free black who taught Cassius to read and took care of his during a pressing time. Cassius knows there will be no investigation of her death since she is merely a free black. He vows to identify who killed her and then kill him himself. Cassius being a secretly intelligent and cautious man sets out to bring justice for Emoline.
The novel explores many relationships between the masters and owners as well as among the slaves themselves. Cassius is well aware that he is an owned man. He wants to be treated as a slave, and when Hoke treats him as 'a human being' Cassius is very uncomfortable. As a cautious man Cassius promised himself he would not love anyone. Anyone you loved could easily be taken away, something Cassius does eventually experience himself with the death of his wife and sale of his son. Throughout, the novel we hear the slaves misquote the bible. They believed the bible proved that black men were to be slaves. Cassius however, could read the bible for himself and knew that the plantation owners and preachers were not right. As much as the slaves were tied to their owners, Cassius believed the planters (owners) were free but chained the slavery. Always, surrounded by the enemy.
David Fuller's 'Sweetsmoke' was an amazing read. The reader gets a real sense of what life as a slave and plantation owner entailed. The characters are well written, and the complex storyline is very easy to read. The book is quite moving, and a great historical fiction novel. I had a hard time putting this novel down, and recommend it to anyone looking for a great read. This would be a great book club choice.