Salvation – Jeff Mann (Bear Bones Books/Lethe Press)

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Any regular reader of this blog knows I’m a big fan of Jeff Mann, whose work never fails to inspire me with its depth and profundity. I was mightily disappointed when I did not get a chance to review his previous Civil War novel Purgatory. Another reviewer fell in love with the book and asked if he could take on the task. As I rarely get a chance to read anything that I can’t also feature on the blog (so many books, so little time…you know how it goes), I couldn’t get back to it. When I heard the sequel was being released, I grabbed the chance to read it. And my patience was well-rewarded.

In Purgatory, Yankee soldier Drew Conrad is captured and tortured by the Rebel soldiers, but war makes for strange bedfellows, and he falls in love with Rebel Ian Campbell, with whom he escapes. As Salvation begins, they are on the run in Rebel territory, trying to find a safe place to wait out the war so they can begin their lives together. They encounter a variety of Southerners in their travels–men, women, opportunists, sadists, and just plain folks–having to keep their love secret with all but one. Can they survive until war’s end and make new lives for themselves in the post-war South?

Perhaps Mann’s largest gift is his ability to take the political and social implications of the war and humanize them to such a degree that all that remains is the human face of conflict. And there are human faces aplenty, here. Not surprisingly, most of them belong to strong, nurturing women. That does not mean, however, that danger is far removed. Pursued by a band of Rebels who have splintered from their respective units and have banded together in a loose conglomeration of death and destruction, Drew and Ian are hardly safe. When their paths do cross, the carnage is as bloody as Mann can make it. But again, politics (other than the broadest kind) are secondary to human retribution.

Along the way, Mann makes the obligatory stops for his recurring peccadilloes of bondage and food. Both are explored in detail. I’ve said it before, but I’ll reiterate here that Jeff Mann is the only author I’ve ever read who can make bondage and sweat-soaked gags sound intriguing and erotic to me. It’s nothing I’d ever indulge in anywhere except the printed page, but…lordy, it makes me want to fan mahsaylf. But his descriptions of Southern cooking are even better–biscuits, gravy, ham, chicken and dumplings, beef stew, sweet potato pudding, creasy greens, barbecue, slaw, custard pie…well, the list goes on. One of the blurbs for this book should read, “A pound on every page.” Clearly, Mann relishes (I couldn’t resist typing that) writing about both bondage and food with equal gusto.

But as interesting and as well-written as those particular quirks are, Mann shines most brightly when creating characters. Drew and Ian spring ready-made from the last book, deepening and strengthening their relationship, so Mann must start from scratch with such wonderful minor characters as Irene Stephens, one of their female saviors. Christian but not puritanical, she’s tired of being bled dry of supplies by the local reverend, so she extracts a terrific retribution  on him and his church. But even she’s small potatoes (oh, dammit–more food) next to the former slave, Tessa, who shelters and feeds them. But the color of her skin is not all that separates her from the others in this book. She’s also a lesbian with a gal masquerading as a soldier in the Confederate ranks. That alone would make her special, but Mann endows her with an insatiable curiosity about the ways of “mens like you.” This character is a total delight that you’ll be thinking about long after her time on the page is finished.

Salvation, then, is an incredible read that teaches about the Civil War as well as it entertains. Full of richly nuanced people and heart-stopping situations of desperation and pursuit, it’s a worthy successor to Purgatory. And I can only hope for a third book that explores how Reconstructionism treats Drew and Ian. Highly, highly recommended.

© 2014 Jerry L. Wheeler

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