Cover image for Sweetsmoke
Publication Information:
[Waterville, Me.] : Thorndike Press, 2009, c2008.
Physical Description:
569 p. (large print) ; 23 cm.
Local Subject:
Cassius Howard is a skilled slave, once his master's favorite. But his master Hoke is now little more than a fragile old man, depressed about an ever-shrinking plantation and losing a son to war. When an old freedwoman who once saved Cassius from Hoke's wrath is killed, Cassius risks everything to avenge her death.


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The year is 1862, and the Civil War rages through the South. On a Virginia tobacco plantation, another kind of battle soon begins.

"A fascinating and gripping novel about the Civil War. The slave, Cassius Howard, is a great fictional character, and his story is part mystery, part love story, and a harrowing portrait of slavery that reads with the immense power of the slave narratives."
--Pat Conroy, author of Beach Music and South of Broad

"David Fuller vividly and movingly describes the life of Cassius, a slave on a Virginia tobacco plantation. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Sweetsmoke resonates with unforgettable characters, and is a gripping story of loss and survival."
--Robert Hicks, author of The Widow of the South

"Fuller works hard to give us a mid-19th century world that feels authentic, from small details . . . to the larger sprawl of the plantation . . . captivating."
-- The New York Times Book Review

"The plot unfolds at a brisk pace, and Fuller does an especially good job with the battle scenes . . . Cassius, who has never drawn a single breath as a free man, is a compelling character from the start. Sweetsmoke is a well-imagined and researched novel of survival and courage."
-- Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"Featuring slave traders, smugglers and spies, the novel transports us to a chilling milieu in which human beings are humiliated, and the slaves have a forlorn hope of freedom, decency and dignity . . . Sweetsmoke haunts us long after the final page is turned."

Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

Mystery novels, ever in need of fresh points of view, are given to strange genre hybrids like Fuller's debut novel: part investigative procedural, part narrative of American slave life. Cassius, a secretly literate slave on a Civil War-era Virginia tobacco plantation, is determined to track down whoever killed his mentor and surrogate mother, Emoline Justice, a free black woman. Making liberal use of his limited freedoms, Cassius takes to the road, playing the obvious disadvantages of life under the yoke to his favor. Along the way, he encounters slave traders, Underground Railroad conspirators, Confederate soldiers, Northern spies and a wide assortment of African-Americans, slave and free. Fuller, a screenwriter, has palpable sympathy for his African-American characters, and Cassius's encounters with other characters--like the haunted slave owner Hoke Howard--are the book's strongest parts. Unfortunately, Fuller's solid plot doesn't carry the novel through to its end, and, despite sourcing the work of historians Eugene Genovese and John Hope Franklin, the novel gives off a distinct whiff of unreality. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved All rights reserved.

Kirkus Review

A debut novel of the Civil War, set on the Virginia tobacco plantation of Sweetsmoke during 1862. The narrative focuses on Cassius, "of lean and hungry look," and indeed named after the character in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Looked after by his master, Hoke Howard, Cassius is smart, shrewd and resentful. Besides Hoke, the dominant influence in his life has been Emoline Justice, an old black woman who during a traumatic time in Cassius's life had taught him to read and write--and who at the beginning of the novel has been brutally murdered. One conceivable motive is the fact that in addition to her role as a fortuneteller and an herbalist, Emoline has been serving as a Federal spy, and it's not clear who knows this secret part of her identity. While giving off the "sweetsmoke" flavor of life on a plantation, the novel also shares something with the whodunits of detective fiction, for Cassius is determined to find her murderer. One prime suspect is Solomon Whitacre, a weasly quartermaster in the Confederate Army. Another is Hoke, for his kindly exterior conceals a ruthless and pitiless interior. While Cassius is offered numerous opportunities to escape, his strong desire to avenge Emoline's death keeps him close to home. Fuller gives us different perspectives on slavery and on the war--we learn about life on the plantation through the slaves themselves, through the privileged life of the owning families and through soldiers who fight not out of loyalty to the Confederacy but to escape dull marriages and the dreariness of domestic life. We also learn of inside maneuvering, of how slaves are pitted against each other to contend for relationships of relative power and prestige. Cassius is eventually caught up in the barbarity of Sharpsburg and finds a creative way to get his freedom--and to solve the mystery of Emoline's murder. While not always gripping, this novel from veteran screenwriter Fuller is well worth reading because of Cassius's sinuous and guileful complexity. Copyright ©Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

New York Review of Books Review

ROBERT M. PIRSIG'S "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (1974) was the rare quest narrative in which two American males headed west in search of enlightenment and didn't score a single chick along the way. Chaste and pedagogic, the book has sold five million copies and inspired way-seeking "Pirsig's pilgrims" to retrace his journey, plotting its GPS coordinates and debating his ideas on the Internet. Devotees compiled a readers' guide and organized an academic conference dedicated to Pirsig's unifying idea, the Metaphysics of Quality. And in their wake came Mark Richardson, who writes about cars and motorcycles for The Toronto Star. In 2004, feeling cramped by his children's Hot Wheels and Pokémon cards, he saddled up his trusty 1985 Suzuki DR600, added a GPS device and Butt Buffer gel seat pad, and set out along Pirsig's route from Minnesota to San Francisco, to arrive on his 42nd birthday. "It's undeniable," Richardson writes, "that if his book could open so many readers' eyes to more of life's qualities, then there's a good chance his actual journey can open my own eyes wider still." Friends, haven't we all been there? Haven't we all traveled to the mystic mountaintop or to Elvis's burial place, hoping for contact catharsis, only to find the same perceptive blockages we carried up in the first place: wow, cool mountain, now what? Or, as Richardson expounds in midjourney, "A big part of the message of 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' can be boiled down to a truism: if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well." This level of insight never lets Richardson down, but it never quite lifts him up, either. Elsewhere in "Zen and Now," he finds "a reminder of one of the greatest lessons of all: live as if you'll live forever, but live each day as if it were your last." And, when he misses his family, he finally discovers that "we're related to each other in ways we never fully understand, maybe hardly understand at all, but my family is pulling at me now as, at 42, I come to realize the meaning of my life. ... People who care and people who care enough for me to give me a home - they are Quality." Like Pirsig's, his is a book of its time: the new seeker's payoff is therapeutic, and fatherhood is life's wondrous gift. Richardson interweaves a broad outline of Pirsig's troubled and fascinating biography. Before his Zen journey, Pirsig was institutionalized and forcibly given electroshock therapy, and much of "Zen and the Art" is the narrator's dance with his pre-shock self, whom he calls Phaedrus. Pirsig later described his collapse, which included waving a gun at his wife, as either "catatonic schizophrenia" or "hard enlightenment," depending on your perspective. He declined to make that call; his ex-wife, Nancy, chose the schizophrenia. His turbulence passed to his son Chris, his travel companion in "Zen and the Art," who was also later institutionalized, and eventually stabbed to death outside a San Francisco Zen center in 1979 during a mugging. In "Zen and the Art," Pirsig used the motorcycle trip mainly to illustrate the principles of his "Inquiry Into Values," which he felt broke through the either-or logjam of Western thought (emotion versus intellect, technology versus romanticism, subject versus object) by establishing the idea of Quality as the foundation for both sides. In press interviews - he did not speak with Richardson, though they exchanged letters - he has lamented that he is not embraced by academic philosophy departments and that his books are sometimes lumped under "New Age." After all, as he writes in "Zen and the Art," his ideas constitute "a line of thought that had never been traveled before." Richardson, on the other hand, is a motorcycle guy. He's best describing the gear or the feel of the bike. "It's almost like bull riding," he writes of heading down a Montana road, "and just as I let out a ringing yee-hah, the road turns without warning ... and an almighty pothole bottoms the suspension, almost throwing the bike into the fence alongside." His tensions are automotive: Will he run out of gas? Will he be able to swerve to avoid oncoming traffic? It's a nice travelogue that occasionally abandons Pirsig's austere path. "That's not for me," Richardson writes. "I'll take a snug Super 8 any day, or an attentive server at a decent steakhouse." The journey through what Pirsig called "the high country of the mind" need not entail outdoor camping or bad coffee. This isn't a biography, and Richardson doesn't provide enough interviews to flesh out the testimony of Pirsig and a few people close to him. For example, part of both "Zen and the Art" and "Zen and Now" concerns Pirsig's battles with the philosophy department at the University of Chicago, which Pirsig describes as high drama, featuring a rebel genius against the tenured forces of darkness. "Zen and Now" offers no second opinion. Richardson's modesty, winning in small doses, distances him from his subject, who was all grand ambition. In the end, Richardson writes, "Robert Pirsig's remarkable book changed my life in numerous ways." I wish I could tell what they were. John Leland is a reporter at The Times and the author of "Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of 'On the Road' (They're Not What You Think)."