A Shout in the Ruins

Written by Kevin Powers
Review by Cynthia Slocum

This dual-period story alternates between the 1860s and 1950s, beginning in Chesterfield, Virginia. Rawls, an enslaved young man, runs away one night to find Nurse, the woman he loves, which results in his being pursued and caught. Seizing the moment to get a bargain, cunning and ruthless plantation owner Antony Levallois purchases Rawls from Bob Reid.

When the Civil War breaks out, Bob Reid goes to fight for the Confederacy, leaving his teenage daughter and his land to fall prey to the machinations of Levallois. Disastrous consequences ensue. Rawls and Nurse, now owned by the same master, manage to reunite. And though their plight improves in that regard, Levallois still causes them anguish. When the war officially ends, suffering and violence remain far from over, and none of the characters endures unscathed.

In 1956, George Seldom, a man in his nineties, becomes displaced from his home because of an interstate highway expansion. He makes a journey back to the ruins of a cabin in North Carolina where he was left as a toddler with a note pinned on him asking for someone to take him in. The truth of George’s origins eludes him, but his connection to the earlier storyline becomes poignantly clear to the reader.

A very adept writing style captures the eras, settings, and lives of these characters. Rich in symbolism, history, and humanity, the book depicts the social context just prior to the Civil War, as well as the subsequent destruction, loss, and lasting devastation wrought on so many levels. It is a wrenching and compelling story with themes of greed, cruelty, and hatred that echo the past and continue to reverberate.