Although not a single cannon is fired in Josephine Humphreys's quietly ambitious Nowhere Else on Earth
, the lives of the inhabitants of Scuffletown, a poor Indian settlement on the Lumbee River in North Carolina, are in every way affected by the Civil War. The demand for turpentine, their principal industry, has dwindled to nothing. When they are not fending off or involuntarily "supplying" Union soldiers and marauding gangs, they are hiding their sons from the macks, their hostile Confederate neighbors (pink-faced Scottish farmers with names like McTeer and McLean), who are rounding up Scuffletown boys for forced labor in forts and salt works, from which few have returned.
Sixteen-year-old Rhoda Strong has seen both her brothers disappear into the woods to join this gang, headed by the handsome, charismatic Henry Berry Lowrie, the hope of Scuffletown--who keeps the young men alive through a series of crimes that inevitably escalate to match the cruelties of the macks. To her mother's distress, and to her own, Rhoda finds herself falling in love with Henry Lowrie, so obviously a marked man. When he notices her, and returns her love, she too becomes marked, dubbed the Queen of Scuffletown by her enemies and drawn into a larger history of suffering and revenge.
Writing from the vantage point of middle age, Rhoda resurrects the past, "hot as coals," in an obsessive act of remembrance, having studied and pondered her story for over 20 years.
One dog tooth is gone, and my monthly flow has dwindled to a spatter. I'm not as full as I used to be, my wrists are skinny, my knuckles are knobs. I'm starting to wear thin. This is the price of the years of thinking, the casting and recording of events and the frantic pen scratching past midnight, the hoarding of paper, the loneliness, the pages accumulating while I myself shrink down.
Rhoda's richly detailed and beautifully sustained fourth novel will recall, in the best ways, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain
(also set in North Carolina, the most "Union" of the Confederate states), although Humphreys has given her heroine a fresh, strong voice, and in turn given a voice to Scuffletown. --Regina Marler
From Publishers Weekly
While Humphreys has been justly praised as a writer with her fingers on the pulse of Southern culture, she surpasses even her previous novels (Dreams of Sleep; The Fireman's Fair; etc.) in this spellbinding story of a largely forgotten remnant of Indians caught between opposing sides during the Civil War. Scuffletown, on the banks of North Carolina's Lumbee River, is home to the mixed-blood descendants of the original Indians in the area, desperately poor but hardworking families who eke out a living in the arduous turpentining trade. Other nearby residents are "the macks"AScots planters who hold the money and power, and own black slaves. During the last months of the Civil War, the lawless Home Guard, led by sadistic Brant Harris, conscripts boys from Scuffletown into forced labor building Confederate fortifications. Teenage narrator Rhoda Strong, daughter of a Scots father and a Lumbee Indian mother, relates the circumstances that lead her brothers to join renegade Henry Berry Lowrie, charismatic scion of Scuffletown's most respected family, in hiding out and defying Harris and his henchmen. In a narrative layered with indelibly memorable scenes, Humphreys depicts the moral ambiguities that beset Scuffletown's residents and the ironies of their precarious position; the sympathies of many are with the Yankees, yet they endure the depredations of Union troops as well as of marauding Confederates. The major irony, however, lies in Henry Lowrie's fate. Pursued by the profiteering hoodlums he has thwarted, Henry eventually becomes a thief in order to survive, and in time, an outlaw hunted for murder. He is arrested in the midst of his wedding to Rhoda, whose coming-of-age is the frame on which the novel rests. Humphreys constructs her intricately wrought plot with understated eloquence, and she breathes life into the landscape of this piney, swampy rural area. Each of a large cast of splendidly realized characters is informed by her understanding of the subtleties of human relationships when race is a factor. Most impressively, she illuminates a largely unknown facet of the Civil War, finding universal resonances in the suffering and quiet heroism of a beleaguered remnant of marginalized Americans. In its historically accurate delineations of the violence, greed and betrayal engendered by internecine conflict, and of corresponding bravery, sacrifice and heartbreak, this novel makes a powerful statement. (Sept.)
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