Canaan’s Tongue

Written by John Wray
Review by Eileen Charbonneau

Set on a crumbling plantation, Canaan’s Tongue centers on the Redeemer, a charismatic leader dead but hardly forgotten. Most of the story is told through Virgil Ball, one of the Redeemer’s gang whose claim to fame is his prophetic, sooth-saying eye. The gang poses as abolitionists eager to help slaves to their freedom. What the unfortunate people who trust them find is duplicity and death. As the battles of the Civil War come to them at their outpost on the Mississippi River, the surviving gang members realize that an avenging angel is in their midst, preying on their fears and beliefs to cut a swath of death until a new Redeemer is found among them.

Based on the world of notorious John Murrell and his murderous gang, Wray weaves a gothic grotesque. Canaan’s Tongue is infused with highly charged language and memorable set pieces, like Vigil’s leading of a coffle of slaves through the middle of a yellow fever epidemic, and a prostitute’s view of the war’s iron ships with men aboard who looks “like maggots on a chop.” But the novel’s many viewpoint shifts diffused impact and its complex theology sometimes proved more confusing than intriguing.