Slant of Light
Just before the Civil War, Turner, a writer and lecturer, founds Daybreak, a Utopian community, in the Missouri Ozarks. He, his wife Charlotte, and Cabot, an abolitionist, are joined by other would-be settlers. All struggle to achieve lofty ideals in face of hardship and despite their human flaws. Charlotte, the most interesting and appealing of the novel’s characters, must deal with her husband’s infidelity and the attraction she and Cabot feel for each other.
A sense of the fragility of civilization and the human potential for violence infuses the novel with an understated tension from beginning to end. Ironically, even as the characters attempt to construct a perfect society, the country is descending into savage conflict. In Missouri this will pit Federal soldiers against guerrilla bands. The author reminds us pointedly several times of the Ancient Roman proverb, “Man is a wolf to man.”
The story is told with great, perhaps excessive, emotional restraint. A major character is informed that he is about to be hanged. We do not experience his reaction but later witness his rescue through the eyes of another character who is a stranger to him. Similarly, when a man dies in the arms of someone who deeply cares for him, we quickly cut away and see the scene from a third character’s point of view. We watch events from a distance rather than closely identifying with any one person. The author excels in portraying a particular place and time in America. Individuals make moral choices that eloquently illustrate who they are as people. But the nondramatic style works against reader involvement. I admired many elements in this novel without feeling fully caught up in the story.