I’m reading my way across the USA–3-5 books from each state, with an emphasis on books where the setting becomes another character, and which teach us something about the people, history, and/or geography of a particular state. We are just starting Georgia, and we have a good one here.
The Last Buffalo Soldier is a wonderful story! And Michael S. Nuckols is a good storyteller, who could really benefit from a good editor. Despite the numerous continuity errors and the roughness of some of the prose, the basic storyline was so interesting that I still wanted to keep reading to find out what happened next.
Continuity errors are things like the gender of a particular named horse changing back and forth from mare to stallion. Or suddenly calling a character who we’ve only just met a page ago as “Daniels” (military-use surname) by his first name, “Pete,” and then several pages later having the main character ask him for his first name. Or having a walk-on character (in this case a photographer) call one of the main characters by the wrong name, despite having gotten it right a page ago. Or having the main character yelling to several other soldiers by name–except it’s his own name he’s yelling. Or conversations like the one below:
Willis looked at his watch. “My granddaughter’s late again. She just started a new job. She claims that they keep changing her schedule. I don’t believe her.” Kyle was curious–surprised that Becca was working. “Where?” “She says she’s working at a fast food restaurant now. I’ll bet they’re changing her schedule.”
This is the kind of thing an editor would mark and ask about. Sure, a character can contradict himself, but neither person in that conversation seems concerned that Willis does so–they don’t even notice. And, yes, it’s minor–they’re all minor. As I said, the story itself is a really good one, and worth reading, despite the flaws, but it’s not just a handful of errors, and they aren’t just typographical errors that you can simply overlook–they’re the kind of things that bring you out of a story abruptly with a, “Huh? Wait… who’s Pete?!”
Nuckols is a “young” writer, in that his prose is not as polished as it will probably become, but I applaud his leap of faith in going for self-publication to build an audience and get the experience he needs. He’s got a great story and some compelling characters. But he’s guilty of the writer’s trap of “telling rather than showing”–honestly, I do this too, which is probably why I recognized it! Here’s a quick example:
“What was that all about?” “Nothing much.” Dolores knew her father. She guessed what the conversation had been about without Willis telling.
I’ve italicized the “telling” part. But we don’t need to be told so explicitly. He could change those last two sentences to something like, “‘Mmm hmm,’ she said knowingly.” Or, “Dolores rolled her twinkling eyes.” It’s more subtle, but it’s still clear–it “shows” the reader rather than “tells” them.
There were times when it felt a little like I was reading a detailed outline or summary for the book rather than the actual prose: He did this. Then he did that. Then he did something else.
But it’s a compelling, interesting, and important story. Nuckols does a good job of weaving the military’s steps toward integration into the community’s even slower integration in the Deep South (though several reviewers complained that he didn’t go far enough to capture the stark terror of the times for black people), and into the modern sections where we can see that some things have improved but others haven’t. There were news headlines scattered throughout that I felt would have been good places for a date to help us as readers, and I was a bit confused as to when the “modern” sections took place (early to mid-1990s).
“In other news, members of the NAACP are decrying the blinding of a Negro war veteran in Aiken, South Carolina. According to documents filed by the NAACP, police beat U.S. Army Sergeant Isaac Woodward in a back alley and in a jail cell until he was nearly unconscious, resulting in permanent blindness. Woodward, a veteran who served in the Pacific Theater, is believed to have caused a disturbance on a Greyhound bus.”
This terrible incident happened in February 1946 (note, Woodard’s name is misspelled), and was one of the key events leading to Truman’s national interracial commission and, eventually, to Executive Order 9981 to desegregate the military on July 26, 1948.
It should also be noted that Nuckols walks a fine line as a white man writing from the perspective of black main characters, trying to be sensitive to modern understandings but still historically accurate in how all of the characters–black and white–act, speak, and think towards themselves and each other.
She whispered. “Virginia ain’t Georgia or Alabama. That’s not how things run down here. You want your head bashed in?” Willis tried not to argue, but could not bite his tongue. “If you sit by and allow this, things like this will continue. We have to make things like this right. … Sometimes you have to fight. We fought Hitler. We shouldn’t have to ask to sit down.” Dolores did not want an argument. Her voice was low and calm. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have to. But guess what? I want to walk away from here, dinner or not. Sometimes you have to just buckle down and put up with things. Some battles aren’t worth fighting.”
The voices of Willis and Dolores felt authentic and spot-on. Nuckols points out in his Author’s Note that their arguments about how much to stand up for themselves in the late 1940s would have put them in a category of “forward thinkers” who still would have been accepted in their own community–it just wasn’t safe yet to go much further than they did, even though as readers we want so much more for them.
There’s some other great tidbits too, like the discussion between Willis and Dolores about Disney’s Song of the South:
“I got the impression that old Walt wants us to think that slavery wasn’t all that bad. We should all be like Uncle Remus waiting for massa’ to come back. It was offensive.” “It was just a story about the South. Uncle Remus reminded me of my own daddy, actually.” “Oh, please,” he exclaimed, “Your father is not a guffawing idiot.”
Song of the South was Disney’s first mixed live action and animated film, released in 1946, and was set on a post-Civil War Georgia plantation (the field hands were sharecroppers not slaves, though some would argue there’s not a whole lot of difference). The argument between Willis and Dolores is a pretty succinct summary of the controversy surrounding the film. The discussion continues and branches out into several other items that I needed to look up as well:
“Joel Chandler Harris was not racist. His son was the newspaper editor here in Columbus. He won a Pulitzer fighting against the KKK” … “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an important story. It shined a light on slavery.” “And made all of us colored folk look like poor down-trodden slaves angry at the world that needed the help of white people to lift us back up. Is there really much of a difference between the two?”
So, Joel Chandler Harris is the white author who made the Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus stories famous. His son, Julian Harris, together with his wife, Julia, were outspoken in their editorials against the Ku Klux Klan (and against attempts to outlaw the teaching of evolution in Georgia), for which they won a Pulitzer in 1926. Harris credited Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for much of his inspiration with regards to Uncle Remus. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an important anti-slavery book in 1852 when it was published. It depicted some of the harsh realities of slavery, but it also inspired a number of stereotypes about black people, including the benevolent Mammy figure and the dutiful, long-suffering Uncle Tom figure.
This conversation and others in the book could be seen as a little heavy-handed, but I thought they felt pretty natural–they seemed to flow in a natural way and to be things real people would say. Nuckols gave just enough information for me to be able to look up the references to flesh out the argument, while still giving the natural feel of a real-life argument where both parties know the details.
Another thing that Nuckols does a wonderful job with is the food–the dishes really bring us into Georgia.
“I’ll make us fried chicken. It’ll beat the hell out of anything in the diner or the mess hall. Now wouldn’t it? Gravy, cornbread, okra, collard greens. How about some black eyed peas?”
Henrietta cooked that evening –fried catfish that Carlton had caught in the Chattahoochee river, coleslaw, hush-puppies, and baked beans.
Nuckols does a good job with the horse dilemma too. “Horses are a thing of the past, son.” After World War II, the internal combustion engine really took over, replacing horses in farming and the military. These discussions reminded me strongly of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, where James is talking with a Yorkshire farmer about how sad it is that horses are being replaced, and the farmer looks at him curiously and asks, “Have you ever plowed a field with a horse, then?” From a practical standpoint it’s a no-brainer that a tractor (or a tank) is going to win over a horse, but from a personal, human level, horses are beautiful and noble. When I was growing up, one of my uncles owned a dairy farm, and his daughter always wanted a horse–I lost track of how many times they re-enacted that conversation: horses no longer serve a practical purpose on a farm, and their upkeep is not cheap, but there’s just something about horses that we love. It was heartbreaking to read about the fate of those stalwart equine veterans.
So, as I said above, despite its flaws, I really felt The Last Buffalo Soldier by Michael S. Nuckols was a winner for my reading challenge! I feel like I know a little more about Georgia, and I’m looking forward to learning more.