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COVENANT: A Terrible, Sobering Story Wonderfully Told

I114_1454t is near the end of the Northern War of Aggression, and General Sherman’s troops have begun their fiery sweep toward Atlanta.  Virtually all able white Southern men and boys have been pressed into the Confederate cause. Any certainty about Southern social order, about the relationship between master and slave, slave and master is slipping away into social and economic chaos.

Rumors of freedom, of a coming Emancipation Proclamation, circle in the eddies of this maelstrom.  Freedom—an impossible hope—is forever pushed back out of the consciousness of slaves born of slaves born of slaves, for hope breeds greater hope, which is certain to be crushed like a butterfly under a boot.  Crushed with malice, carelessness, or complete indifference, but crushed.   It is better not to hope.  Now, though, there is the real possibility of freedom, whatever that might mean, but it is to be born in a world of nearly complete social, moral and economic breakdown.

It is a terrible, sobering story told wonderfully by author C.D. Harper.

Seth Harper, Jr., is the owner of a vast Kentucky plantation pulled from the wilderness by his grandfather and completed by his father.  He has inherited land and slaves, but has neither the drive nor confidence to master the place or its people.  Uncertainty besets him, and he does not so much rule the enterprise as count on Providence to do it for him. The one assurance he carries is that his forebears, and now him, were providentially selected to be its master. Yet his resolve, his interest in the affairs of the plantation have been softened, perhaps, by a gift from his father.  His world disrupted by the forces of war, he is drawn forward more by bewilderment than rational action.

Sandy is his slave, a woman perhaps of mixed race, purchased by his father and given to Seth Junior when they were both young children.  She is lover, confidante, friend somewhere between slave and honored slave—but never wife, never free.  The children he conceives with her are chattel of no more meaning than the slaves who work his fields and whose names he has never bothered to learn.

Hattie, now an old woman kitchen slave, was unwilling concubine to Seth Senior.  She is used up and wonders why God won’t let her die. Lulu, white debutante and the daughter of a doctor who does not believe in owning slaves but is pleased to rent them from others, has been educated in the north. Her deep roots in southern plantation culture, however, will come to belie the veneer of enlightenment.  She is determined to marry Seth Junior but not serve the same empty fate as wives of other plantation owners—to breed male children for heirs and ignore their husbands’ sexual (and sometimes romantic) exploits with other women—even if they be slaves who cannot say no.

As the social structure crumbles under the war, Sandy and others decide to run—but to where and what they have no ken.  Brutality has replaced civility, and here Hunter lets no one off the hook.  As heavy a burden as slavery was for the slaves, this quasi-freedom is even worse—kidnapping, rape, murder—even enslavement and brutality by men of their own race and the rape of black and white women alike by the marauding army from the north.

There are few kindnesses here, for that is the nature of this story. And if Harper’s characters return to the same wonderments from time to time, the same labored thoughts, there is art in this repetition.  His characters are in a world almost beyond comprehension and without guideposts, without rules.

This reader is reminded how brittle are civility, regard, and social justice in the face of prejudice and the demand for absolute power over others even by little bullies, little despots.

Read this book.  Experience it. It’s worth your time and your thought.

For more, check out the author’s website at cdharperbooks.com

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