Author Steve Wiegenstein is a historian and first-time novelist. He has penned an intriguing story of about James Turner, an impulsive writer and lecturer, who is given a tract of land upon which to found a community. Not just a new town, but a new society, inspired by Turner’s dreams of creating a real-life utopia. He is joined in the experiment by his new wife, Charlotte, and Cabot, an idealistic Harvard-educated abolitionist who has been run out of Kansas.
The new community is called Daybreak, but as America stands poised on the brink of Civil War, not all are willing participants and Turner soon learns that leading a farm community in the middle of the Missouri Ozarks isn’t the idyllic life he envisioned. Charlotte, confronted with the hardships of rural life, must mature in a hurry to deal with the challenges of building the community as she comes to grip wit her husband’s betrayals and growing attraction to Cabot. And Cabot finds himself drawn to join the fight against slavery, even though he longs to remain with the woman he loves.
The fledgling utopians attempt to remain neutral as war looms, but quickly find that is not an option. Following a deadly bushwhacking, Turner learns that he is also capable of violence. And when the war finally erupts, Missouri descends into a uniquely savage brand of conflict in which guerrilla bands terrorize the countryside while Federal troops control the cities, and neither side offers or expects quarter.
Ultimately, each member of Daybreak must take a stand —- in both their political and personal lives.
The Real-Life “Daybreak Community”
I have spent a great deal of my working life as an academic engaged in the study of utopian communities, and one in particular has interested me for many years. When the moment came for me to return to my first love -— fiction writing -— the idea of placing a utopian community into a troubled setting came to me almost by default. So instinctively I turned for inspiration to my favorite Nineteenth-Century utopian community, the Icarians.
The Icarians have their origins in a novel, incredibly enough. Their founder, Etienne Cabet, was a radical politician in France in the 1830s, and at one time was elected to the Chamber of Deputies as a Socialist. But the political winds in France at that time shifted against him, and by 1834 he was faced with the choice of prison or exile for his opinions, which were now considered subversive. He chose exile in England.
While in England, waiting for the political winds to shift again, he read widely and he wrote a number of tracts critical of the situation in France. But what gained him his greatest fame was a novel, Voyage en Icarie (Travels to Icaria). Cabet scholars generally believe that the purpose of this book was to continue his attack on the injustices of French society at the time, only in fictional form instead of essays and journalism. In the novel, a young aristocrat is shipwrecked on a South Sea island where the society is organized along purely socialist principles. As you might imagine, everyone is happy, goods are distributed equally, and all contribute their labor to this island workers’ paradise. But what happened next is the fun part.
A lot of people in France became caught up in the fictional Icarian society of Cabet’s novel. They organized “Icarian societies” that discussed how to enact Icarian principles into real life. And when Cabet returned from exile in the 1840s, he found a large group of people who wanted to make Icaria happen -— not in France, but in the New World. So an advance guard traveled to Texas in 1848, met with disaster, returned to New Orleans where another group led by Cabet himself was waiting, and then together they traveled upriver to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the largely vacant city had recently been abandoned by the Mormons under pressure from their hostile neighbors.
Things in Nauvoo went well for a while, but then internal strife led the group to break up. About two-thirds relocated to Iowa, while a third located outside of St. Louis. The Iowa group held on the longest, through two more internal splits, and the last Icarians finally disbanded in 1898. A fifty-year run as a socialist commune in the American Midwest -— a pretty remarkable legacy, I’d have to say.
Read an Excerpt from Slant of Light
It was a patch of Harp Webb’s hair that had come out from under his hat. He was sitting at the base of a tree about forty feet up the hill from her, his heavy canvas coat draped all the way to the ground, his rifle propped between his knees. Charlotte walked over to him.
“Mr. Webb,” she said. “I didn’t see you there.”
“Ma’am.” He touched his hat and got to his feet. “Feels good to stand up. I been holding that pose for three, four hours.”
He pointed across the hollow. “I seen some turkey sign on that slope a few days ago, thought I might put one in my bag. Then when you came along I figured the turkey wouldn’t show, so I decided to watch you instead.”
“All this time?”
He shrugged. “Didn’t have nothing else planned for today.”
The idea of Webb sitting up the hill from her, watching her, all this time, made Charlotte shudder. “You should announce your presence. Don’t you have anything better to do with yourself?”
“You people are the ones with all the ambition. Me, I just sit and hunt the birds.”
They came to the edge of the hollow and looked down at the colony.
“Not that turkey hunting ain’t work of its own sort,” he said. “The trick to hunting is, you got to be willing and able to outwait your animal. He pointed to a groundhog hole at the base of a tree. “Now that critter, he will outwait a man. You got to catch him by surprise. But the other animals, you wait downwind long enough, and they will forget you. Then you got ‘em.”
The path down to the village was little more than a trail, with weeds and sassafras sprouts growing in the wagon tracks.
“You’re feeling philosophical today, Mr. Webb.”
“Rally me all you want, ma’am. I do think a few thoughts from time to time. Even an ignorant border ruffian is entitled to a thought now and then.”
“I’m sure that’s true.” She forced a smile.
“Are you now.” He studied her face. “You might be surprised. Take for example, did you ever wonder why your property lines run at an angle up the river valley instead of straight north and south?”
Charlotte was flustered. “No, I never really did.”
“’Cause it’s an old Spanish land grant, that’s why. The Spanish, they surveyed this valley first, and they just laid it out how they pleased. All that township and range stuff came later. My daddy bought this acreage from a man who had got it from the Spanish, way back when, who got it I guess from the Indians.” He paused. “You should read the deed sometime, it talks all about so many arpents this way and so many arpents that way. Bet you’ve never seen the corner markers.”
He pointed. “Blaze on a blackoak tree that way, rockpiles that way and that way, big X painted on the bluff over yonder.”
“You know this land pretty well.”
“You’re damn right I do, beg your pardon. It would have been mine to inherit, till you people came along. And that ain’t the half of it. When my daddy parceled off this claim for you all, he split me off the part with the house and downriver. I go all the way up that mountain, down the other side about half way, then right angle across the river to about where you can see that outcrop. Then back across the river to the house.”
Harp continued to talk as they walked toward the settlement. “’Course, I ain’t built no town on it, no houses or barns or corncribs or what all. I ain’t got big ideas like my daddy and you all. But it’s mine all the same.”
“Your father is quite a man.”
“Oh yeah, one of the great men of the county, they say. Always reading his books, always talking about serving the greater good. He read your husband’s book over and over. Taught me to read, too, but I don’t care for it. I take my lessons at the feet of Mother Nature.”
“And what did Mother Nature teach you?”
Webb gave her an appraising look. “Most people only see what they want to see in nature. It ain’t easy to read the real lessons.”
She waited for him to continue.
“Eat. Struggle. Mate. Die,” he said. “Put off dying for as long as you can. Take pleasure where you can, for pleasures are always cut short. Defend your ground.”
“And you had no mother of your own?”
Webb shrugged, but his beard hid any expression. “Run off. She was from back East. The rustic life didn’t agree with her, I guess.”
“What about the other lessons of nature? Beauty and cooperation?”
They were halfway down the slope by now. Harp stopped and turned back toward the edge of the forest. “Oh yeah, some of the creatures cooperate. The lower creatures, the bees and the ants. And the wolves. I believe I’ll part from you here,” he said. “My father, he had two terms as judge, you know. Great believer in the common good, king of the ants. Didn’t none of it rub off on me. Me, I just sit under trees. I watch and wait.”
From their vantage point on the hillside, they could see the entire valley, two miles from end to end. The colonists’ work of tree-cutting and stump removal was pushing the fields northward, into the bottomland forest, but there was still a great deal of ground to be cleared. The huddle of houses that made up Daybreak looked insignificant from up here, and the cleared fields little more than a small gap in the forest that surrounded them, forest that began just across the road and extended eastward into the distance, hill upon hill receding, the winter gray-brown of the near woods growing bluer and paler as the hills backed away to the horizon, and forest behind her, the cemetery barely hacked out and constantly encroached upon by sprouts at every edge, forest that blanketed the hillslope and stretched westward behind her, how far God only knew.
And at the south end of the valley was the original house, the Webbs’ house, fronting the main road, and behind it their barn and outbuildings. Tucked against the hillside was Harp’s odd collection of shacks and sheds, where he seemed to spend most of his days.
“That’s quite a nest of buildings,” Charlotte said.
“You should come and see sometime,” Harp said, a note of pride in his voice. “Took me two years to get ‘em the way I wanted.” He pointed with his rifle. “That one highest up is the springhouse. This near building, that’s my stillhouse, and the long one behind it is my saltpeter works. You ever seen saltpeter made?”
“Oh, it’s the champion. Every so often I dig out a bunch of dirt from the cave and put it in some tubs. Then I just let the water drip through it, again and again, until I’ve got a good batch of liquid to boil off. Sometimes I’ll have two fires going, whiskey in the one house, saltpeter in the other. Tending a fire all day ain’t a half bad job.” Webb’s eyes darted to her overcoat, where Newton still slept in her arms. “Boy doing all right?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“He takes to crying too much, you tell me and I’ll fix him up a little whiskey teat. I seen it done many a time. Everybody else wants their jug filled, I charge ‘em cash money, but for you, nothing.”
“Thank you. I’ll let you know.”
He turned and started to walk toward his still, following the curve of the hillside. Then he stopped and looked down at the colony again, his eyes sharp. Marie Mercadier was carrying an armload of stovewood into her house.
“There’s a pretty young thing,” he said. “Bet every man in the settlement has his eye on her.”
He said nothing more and walked away. Charlotte watched him go, then walked slowly the rest of the way down the hill, Newton resting in his warm cocoon, her shadow long before her in the slanting light, shivering from what she told herself was the evening’s chill.
Steve Wiegenstein grew up in the eastern Missouri Ozarks and roams its back roads every chance he gets. The Black River and Annapolis Branch Library were his two main haunts as a kid, and they remain his Mecca and Medina to this day. He is a longtime scholar of the 19th century Icarian movement in America, which provided the inspiration for Slant of Light. He particularly enjoyed weaving the real-life story of Sam Hildebrand -— the notorious Confederate bushwhacker who murdered one of Steve’s ancestors –- into the novel.
Steve and his wife, Sharon Buzzard, both academics, live in Columbia, Missouri. Slant of Light, the first installment in his Daybreak series, is also his first novel.
Thank you, Steve!
Be sure to visit Colloquium this Sunday, June 10, 2012, to read my review of Slant of Light and enter to win your own copy, generously provided by author Steve Wiegenstein!