Saturday, January 25, 2014

New Feature

I introduce today and each month thereafter a worthy self-published writer of American historical fiction.

Self-publishing is a recent phenomenon.  Thousands of new authors self-publish.  That is because major publishing firms and the agents that work with them reject out of hand virtually any manuscript an unknown writer submits.  Their thinking is that if the writer does not have name recognition the reading public will not purchase his book.  Publish only what the public is certain to buy.  There is a presumption held by many readers that self-published books are poorly written.  It is true that some books are not worth the paper they are printed on.  Many, however, are of high quality and well worth a literate person’s time and expense to read.  Yet they rarely see the light of day.  How does one connect discerning readers with well-written self-published fiction?  In my own small way I hope to do that.

I will not have read in its entirety each book I feature.  Maintaining this blog site and writing my second historical novel leaves me little time for recreational reading.  What I do read before deciding whom and what I will feature are historical fiction chapter excerpts displayed by  I look for at least one aspect in the writing that is unique.  It might be strong characterization, plot potentiality, an unusual setting in an interesting time period, valuable historical information, a vivid style of writing, or the suggestion of a thought-provoking theme.  It must capture my interest.  I hope that what I post each month will capture yours.

Harold Titus

Guest Author Christopher Datta – Part One

Synopsis of “Touched with Fire.”

Ellen Craft is property; in this case, of her half-sister Debra, to whom she was given as a wedding gift. The illegitimate daughter of a Georgia plantation owner and a house slave, she learned to hate her own image, which so closely resembled that of her “father:” the same wiry build, the same blue eyes, and the same pale—indeed, lily-white—skin.

Ellen lives a solitary life until she falls, unexpectedly, in love with a dark-skinned slave named William Craft, and together they devise a plan to run North. Ellie will pose as a gentleman planter bound for Philadelphia accompanied by his “boy” Will. They make it as far as Baltimore when Will is turned back, and Ellie has no choice but continue. With no way of knowing if he is dead or alive, she resolves to make a second journey—South again. And so Elijah Craft enlists with the 125th Ohio Volunteers of the Union Army: she will literally fight her way back to her husband.

Eli/Ellie’s journey is the story of an extraordinary individual and an abiding love, but also of the corrosive effects of slavery, and of a nation at a watershed moment.

Author Background and Observations

I was born in November of 1950 in Washington, DC, and I live there today, about fourteen blocks away from the Capitol building, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress.

When folks in the heartland say, “It’s those people living in Washington who screw things up,” it would seem they mean me.  I am a Foreign Service officer in the United States Department of State.

I’ll give you a list of the places where I served my country as a Foreign Service officer. India, Jordan, the Sudan, South Sudan, Lebanon, Eritrea, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. At least five of those places had active wars going on while I was there. I have been on battlefields and seen the bodies of the dead. I have given orders to US servicemen to shoot to kill. I have been to mass graves and seen the skeletons of the slaughtered. I have brought two war criminals to justice and as acting ambassador rescued 150 Americans from Liberia when the capital was in the middle of fierce fighting. I have had desperate people beg me for help I could not give. I have had desperate people beg me for aid I saved. I have helped to stop two wars, one in Liberia and one in South Sudan. I have stared down the wrong end of a rocket propelled grenade and I have looked into the very face of evil. I have met some of the most awful and most decent people the world has known. I even spent a year working in the US Congress. I have had dengue fever, also known as bone-break fever because along with the 105 degree fever you feel like your joints are being crushed, and I’ve had malaria as well as intestinal parasites more times than I can count.

My fascination with civil conflict started when I was a child. Perhaps I was born with it, but my parents also encouraged it. When I was very young, my parents took me to the Gettysburg National Battlefield Park.  I remember the old photographs of the dead on the battlefield. One in particular of a dead Confederate sharpshooter in the Devil’s Den, a small fortress of boulders that commanded an excellent view of where the Union lines were dug in, has always haunted me. The photo shows a young soldier slumped into a corner of the stones, his rifle leaning against the boulder next to him. I am sure it was the first dead person I had ever seen.  The picture was almost one hundred years old, but the rocks looked exactly the same. He had been there, right where I was. The place was the same, except he was gone and now I was there. I was there precisely because he, along with all of his comrades and his enemies, had fought there.  Who was he? What had brought him there? Why had he died? Why was he still present, in the Devil’s Den, at least in the photograph? Somehow, in some way, I knew his ghost would always be there. The defining moment of his life was that one image of his death.

Today, my personal Civil War library includes about 400 books, and I have written two novels set during the war. So you could say Gettysburg stuck with me.

Civil conflicts tear open and lay bare the soul of any nation. When brother fights brother, values are put in stark perspective by how the ferocity of our differences shatters our common bonds. In many ways, the United States was lucky. We created a mythology about the Civil War and what it meant that healed us as a nation, though a price was paid, mostly by the former slaves and their descendants. About a decade after the war, the North and the South finally reached an accommodation. Both sides would be allowed to maintain the nobility of the struggle, and the dignity of the surrender at Appomattox would form the core of the mythology of what happened between the two sides. In exchange, the South would accept reunification under the unspoken agreement that the North would end its half-hearted attempts to impose racial equality, permitting the South to maintain white superiority by violently repressing its African-American population in a form of semi-slavery. It was really the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s that wrote the final chapter of the Civil War, a hard fought battle by some of the most courageous men and women, black and white, that this nation has ever known. They faced enormous odds, and many died, but it is a credit to our nation that they finally prevailed. I do not mean to say perfection was achieved. It was not. The vestiges of racism live on, and vigilance is still required. But that is always true in any democracy anywhere I have ever been.

Part One Chapter Two Excerpt

Macon Georgia
April of 1855
      A large, elderly black woman sat down heavily next to him.

     “Good morning to you, Miss Betsey,” said Will, bowing slightly.  “And how are you this fine Sunday morning?”  A house slave belonging to Colonel Thomas Collins, a prominent member of the white community, Will had known Miss Betsey all his life.
     “Terrible,” fussed the old woman, wheezing.  “My arthritis is so powerful bad today it’s a wonder I can walk.”
     “Well I’m sorry to hear it.”
     “Sorry and a cat’s whiskers don’t never fix a thing, but thank you anyways.  But listen, young man, I’s sitt’en here for a reason.  How old is you?”
     “I’m twenty-five,” he answered.  “But you know that.”
     “Yes I do, but I wanna be sure you does, because it’s high time you take yourself a wife.  A young, honest ‘n fine-looking buck like you got no business being single.  I knows lots a young girls be only too pleased to be the aim a your partiality, and it’s high time you got about it.”
 Every matron in town seemed to want to play matchmaker for him.  It was a subject he dearly preferred to avoid, but he was trapped in church with no escape.
     “Well, it’s not so easy as that, Miss Betsey,” he started, but was cut off.
     “What in thunder ain’t easy?  You a man ain’t you?  Just look round this here church,” she said, waving her cane in the air and nearly knocking the hat off the woman sitting to her front.  “It ain’t like you ain’t got a plentitude a pretty gals like chickens in a barnyard ready for plucking.  What ain’t easy ‘bout it’s what I’d like to know?  Ain’t there even one good nuff for you, Mr. all fire High and Mighty?”
     “Now, Miss Betsey …”
     “Don’t you Miss Betsey me.  It ain’t right a fine young boy like you ain’t do’en his duty.  Now I can pick a woman make you happy as a tick in a dog’s ear, just see if I can’t.”
     “I’m sure you can, Miss Betsey …”
     “Then what’s your problem?”
     “The problem is a slave marriage has no standing, and you know it.  We don’t belong to ourselves, but to our masters to decide if and when we come or if and when we go, as their pocketbook or mood decides.  Now what kind of a marriage is that?” he said heatedly.
     “Shush,” Miss Betsey hushed him, “keep your voice low.”
     She looked at the Reverend Zachary Hess at the front of the church, the white preacher sent every Sunday to watch over the slave congregation.  Sitting quietly observing the assembling crowd, he was fiftyish, fat, squinty-eyed, and sporting a handlebar moustache of truly epic proportions.  The whites forbade the assembly of slaves for fear they would hatch plots to rebel, but church was the exception.  Religion, properly supervised, was believed to have a calming influence on the mind of the slave, and Hess was there to see that this church and its messages were properly supervised.  He did not preach himself; a black minister, Reverend Evander, did that.  He just sat by the altar staring balefully at the congregation and watching, watching, watching.  Watching him watch them gave William a case of the shivers, but there was nothing to do about it.
     Miss Betsey leaned in close to William and in a low voice said, “Now you listen and you listen good.  Ain’t noth’en in life for nobody that’s their own.  The good Lord says when you lives and when you dies, where you goes and what you does, and that’s as true for any white man as for any nigger.  The day a jubilation’s coming, William, when all slaves will taste the sweet, sweet fruit a freedom.  I knows it in my heart.  Maybe I ain’t gonna see it, but it’s a coming none the same.”
     A solitary figure walked past, taking a seat five pews to their front.  That it was a white woman surprised William until he recognized her as Ellie Smith, a short, thin and handsome young woman with jet black hair and a sad yet defiant set to her face and eyes.  William knew she was the slave daughter of Major Smith; everyone in town knew the scandal of her parentage.  Her mother was also the offspring of a master-slave coupling, making Miss Ellie a quadroon.
     Two of the women next to her got up and moved, leaving her prominently alone as she stared straight ahead.
     “Why do they do that?” whispered William.
     “Do what?” said Betsey.
     “Why do those women move away from her like that?” he said, nodding to Ellie.
     “Oh, you mean that piece a calico?  Just see how fine she dresses, putt’en on airs like she’s the better of us all just cause her daddy’s a white man and she white as the harvest moon in a midnight sky her own self.  And for all her airs them clothes ain’t nothing but hand me downs from her daddy’s real gals.
     “And she talks even better’n you, all high and mighty when she ain’t no more’n just another nigger.  I knows for a fact she can’t neither read nor write, just like the rest a us, even with her fine airs.  And she won’t have nothing to do with no black man, she’s so proud a that white skin.  Proud a what I don’t even know except being conceived in shame and she act like she got a badge a honor.  It ain’t fitt’en.”
     William noted many young men watching Ellie, a strange blend of lust and hostility in their eyes.  There was not a man here who did not want her, knew he could not have her, and felt a fierce resentment because of it.  A resentment apparently shared, thought William, by most of the women.
     William caught the look in the Reverend Hess’s eyes, who was also staring at her, and the lust William saw there curdled his blood.
     William shook his head.  He knew she refused the advances of every young man in the congregation, and even if her dresses were hand me downs from her half-sisters, she was still the best dressed woman in church.  And growing up in the house with her half sisters, she did speak like an educated woman, even if she was not.  Of course, William was the same.  Dealing almost exclusively with educated whites in his trade, he learned to speak like one.
     “I hopes you ain’t got your eye set on that trash,” sneered Miss Betsey.  “That ain’t nothing but trouble, and that’s the Lord’s sweet truth.”
     “No,” said William.  “I don’t need that problem in my life.  I’m no fool, Miss Betsey.”

For additional “Touched with Fire” Excerpts and Information go to

An interview of Christopher Datta and a second excerpt tomorrow.