Selma: A Novel of the Civil War
© 2008 Val McGee
Today, Selma, Alabama is a small town on the Alabama river, largely forgotten save for its role in the Civil Rights movement. But once it was a great city, a commercial boomtown whose city fathers boasted of its many rail connections and steamboat landings. During the Civil War, Selma was an industrial powerhouse — and Val McGee has produced a story set during those years, one which follows a father and son team of attorneys and their friends through the war and beyond, on the stage that was the Queen City of the South.
Years ago, the curator of the local history museum (Jean Martin) produced a pictorial history of Selma under the name Selma: from Civil War to Civil Rights. McKee could have very well used that as a subtitle, for he uses his characters to explore issues within slavery (its role in the war, its legality, its effect on the economy) and ends with an epilogue set in 2000, where President Bill Clinton visited the city to observe its storied role in the Civil Rights movement. The lead characters are as sympathetic as can be believable: anti-slavery unionists who believe slavery should be phased out. They rarely voice these views, however, for fear of disrupting good relations with their neighbors. As much as they dislike the path Selma takes, it is their home; for that reason, the son joins the Selma Rifles to fight against the Union which he would would prefer to see kept intact. The other characters run the gamut, from businessmen and aristocrats to freedmen and slaves.
Selma’s greatest appeal for me, as a native son, is imagining life on its streets when it was a much more successful city. In my walks through its streets, I often imagine them as it were — my mind’s eye can see the trolleys on Broad Street, the lights in the upstairs windows of now-abandoned buildings, suddenly by my imaginings restored to life, full of people living and working in them. The Selma of McKee’s story is a young, energetic city, where cotten bales slide down the long ramps from the bluff to the landing, where back streets are thick with trade carts, where men in suits and ladies in massive dresses boarded carriages for Sunday picnics out in the country, enjoying the fresh air where is now a rather large parking lot in front of an abandoned Winn-Dixie. (Some of this romanticized, of course…I doubt anyone would want to return to wearing so much clothing these days, especially given the life-sucking humidity around here in August.) But the rose of history has thorns, and in Selma’s case that’s slavery. Those bales crashing down to the landings were picked by slaves. Dallas County was then and is now predominately agricultural, and owned by the cotton trade, and that dominates its destiny. The townsfolk eagerly embrace the planters’ revolt — and pay the price when the Union army arrives to burn the foundry.
I suspect the book’s primary audience is Selmians themselves, though it was received poorly, and probably because McKee doesn’t romanticize the Old South, Gone with the Wind style. The culture of slavery was brutal, and that’s not shied away from here. Slaves are beaten and raped, abandoned in their age while the ‘good Christians’ of town champion slavery as an institution sanctioned and favored by God as a way of civilizing Africans. The lead characters are against secession, against slavery, and against the war — and while they may hide this from their contemporaries, their arguments between themselves are in full view of 21st century Selmians who don’t like being reminded of the dark side of history. Like most people, we prefer to imagine our ancestors as noble, not base. But history is what it is, and every city has its sewers. As a lifelong scalawag who nevertheless owns being ‘southron’, I found the book’s greatest weakness to be the stiltededness of the dialogue between characters. I don’t know if McKee went for the loquaciousness of Austen and came off sounding inauthentic (rather like Mr. Collins), but his characters sound like ideologues in their back-and-forth exchanges. They don’t speak in ways that anyone in reality ever would: when a society man is hinted at as having fathered several children by slaves, a young socialite remarks that it’s a shame, but an unavoidable side effect of the socio-economic system in which they live — sounding rather like King Arthur’s noisy peasants. I also wish he’d paid more attention to Selma during the war years: the book is set in 1860-1861, and then 1864-Reconstruction, jumping over most of the war after throwing Selma’s sons into an opening battle or two.
Selma is an enjoyable book, for the most part, and a treat in its author imagining the city in more prosperous days.