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SELMA: A Novel of the Civil War

By Val L. McGee
Yoknapatawpha Press/Author House, 2008
$29.95, Hardcover; $19.95, Paper

Reviewed by Julia Oliver

By ten o’clock in the morning the road running south from Selma and north from the town of Cahaba was lined with carriages, buggies, and dozens of men and women on horseback. The horses were a pageant by themselves, nearly all prime specimens of their breed.

From these opening sentences, you know you’re in the hands of a good storyteller. Dale County retired district judge Val McGee, who has served as president of both the Alabama Historical Association and the Friends of the Alabama Archives, is the author of several books of history. His ambitious, impressively researched first novel is set in and around the town of Selma just before, during, and after the Civil War.

Part of the story’s stately, old-fashioned charm is that it comes to us via the perspectives of peripheral as well as principal characters. These pages are also inhabited by famous historical figures, such as statesman William Lowndes Yancey, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and Mobile novelist Augusta Evans.

Lawyer and patriarch Tate McLester is proud of his one-sixteenth Creek Indian ancestry. His wife’s planter-aristocracy relatives, the Elliots, are in favor of secession from the Union, but McLester does not want the Union to split. His anti-slavery stance is linked to sub-plots based on actual incidents of racism. A section at the end of the book contains summaries of relevant nineteenth century law cases involving slaves and ex-slaves from Alabama Supreme Court reports. Tate McLester shares the protagonist role with his son Sam, who enlists and serves in the Confederate Army.

In panoramic fiction, exposition can disrupt as well as enrich the narrative flow. Here, those traits seem to balance out. Accounts of the 1861 Secession Convention in Montgomery and the intense fortification of Selma against the Union Army’s invasion were more fascinating to me than the genre-requisite battle scenes. McGee has a masterly touch for detail, whether it’s sideline informative-such as back then it took eight hours or longer, depending on the current, to travel by waterway between Montgomery and Selma-or purely descriptive. A brief observation about the casual collision of a young woman’s hoop skirt with a man’s trousered leg speaks volumes. Nov 2008

Julia Oliver is a novelist and journalist in Montgomery.

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