Published by Grove Atlantic on July 7th 2015
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When New Orleans falls to the Union in the middle of 1962, twelve year-old Joseph Woolsack’s life is suddenly changed. His city is under the tightening grip of Union commander General Benjamin “the Beast” Butler while his father dies of mysterious circumstances, which leaves his mother, Elise, both questioning and questioned. A mixed-race woman passing as white, Elise’s situation grows intense after the death of her husband, as she attempts to hold on to her son and her position in a rapidly evolving, violent city.
As in Kent Wascom’s debut novel, The Blood of Heaven, which I loved, most everything in Secessia is grand. The novel’s key characters are all larger than life, with big personalities that are just as easy to fall into as the grimy, dangerous streets of New Orleans. But it’s the way Wascom writes those characters and streets that sets his books apart. Though his words are as grandiose as the images they convey, each one is delicately placed to create a cadence that begs the reader to slow down and enjoy the ride.
“Nine hundred and fifty days before she will bear brightness again. A year and a half before she may trim collar or cuff in white; two years before the allowance of gray; an interminable afterward while color is slowly introduced. She has seen girls married off at seventeen and within months were made gloom-shrouded avatars for husbands who’d done not more than bloody a good set of sheets. And there were those girls, low or high, who themselves died, and for whom husbands dutifully adhered to the widower’s tradition: a black armband on their usual suits. Worn for how long, she cannot say. There are fewer rules for men.”
So much historical fiction seems posed—almost as if it must bend to fit the genre—but the writing here feels more like a necessity. Secessia reads like an outpouring of fascination and love for the past with little concern for convention, which only solidifies Kent Wascom’s unique place in the literary landscape.