Fullerís provocative novel goes to the heart of American slavery circa 1862. Sweetsmoke, a tobacco plantation, is thriving, but the Civil War has brought added problems to local planters. The Confederate Army requires supplies from each property owner to aid the war effort. A carpenter, Cassius belongs to Hoke Howard, a third-generation planter who has long showed favoritism toward Cassius to the disgust of Howardís wife, who nurtures her own quiet resentments.
Cassius has known his share of grief: the loss of his wife, the fate of their son, a brief flare of hope extinguished by the cruel reality of slave life on a Virginia plantation. The plantationís history is rife with complications, the personal dramas of slaves and owners, the relationship of power to the powerless in the forefront as the war takes its inevitable toll on the Commonwealth of Virginia.
At his lowest ebb, Cassius is nursed back to health, emotionally and physically, by the tender ministrations of a freed black woman, Emoline Justice, a kindness for which he is deeply grateful. With so little affection available in this harsh landscape, Emolineís generosity is a precious memory for Cassius, the hours spent soothing and comforting a man suffering grievous wounds.
When Emoline is brutally murdered, Cassius determines to find her killer and exact revenge. To that end, he begins a thorough and disciplined investigation, searching her house and private papers for clues to the murdererís identity. With numerous possibilities, Cassius systematically examines each suspect, eliminating them one by one until he has narrowed the options.
With little to brighten his heavy heart, Cassius dares hope for some small happiness with the arrival of Quashee, new to the plantation. Even this attraction is fraught with danger for a man whose very existence is a minefield.
This is the essence of Fullerís devastating novel: couched in a mystery is the harsh reality of pervasive menace that attends life for the powerless, those unable to control their own fates, particularly Cassius, of noble sensibility and great heart. Even in the slave quarters. Cassius is watched, small envies blooming in such a competitive environment, any favoritism looked on with suspicion.
Suffering the effects of the Civil War, the loss of one son and the service of another in the cause, the plantation is uneasy at best. Patrollers search nightly for runaway slaves, mutilating those who are caught. The slaves find occasional relief in drunken revelry. The unseen caste system of plantation life and the petty jealousies abound, as well as a thriving, if risky, underground railroad.
Fuller tells Cassiusís story from the slaveís perspective, offering exceptional insights into an institution that has left a layer of shame on this country since its inception. Mining this fertile territory, Fullerís Cassius is the soul of this novel, his outrage at Emolineís killing, a voice for the oppressed as he endeavors to carve a small place for himself in a system that demeans the individual and renders him invisible. It is through Cassiusís investigation that the other characters are revealed, their venal actions shocking and revelatory.
This extraordinary protagonist navigates the back roads while on his mission on Emolineís behalf, dodging patrollers, infiltrating the Confederate Army in search of a murderer, accomplishing the impossible with threat of exposure at every turn. His heart burdened with ambivalence, Cassius refuses to allow Emolineís death to go unremarked, discovering his own path on this incredible journey from despair to hope.