RISING BLACK CLOUD
By David Wright Falade
290 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $27.
There is nothing luscious in David Wright Faladé’s “Black Cloud Rising”. It is a Civil War novel based on the real experiences of the African Brigade, a unit of black soldiers, including many freed and recently enslaved people, who in 1863 poured into the south coast with the forces of Union, helping to track down rebel guerrillas.
Faladé’s book, however, is so accessible and exciting that you hope it becomes available in a consumer paperback format, in a packaging that more clearly announces: This book is a true page-turner.
There are no braided points of view here, no too-pretty words, no broken syntax. No leaden diagnoses of the predicament of the man belching on the smoky horizon. The nature of the American experience is implicitly questioned but not burned to the ground.
What is burnt down, satisfactorily, are the homes of recalcitrant slave owners, landed aristocrats. This is a classic war story told simply and well, its meanings not forced but allowed to emerge on their own.
“Black Cloud Rising” — the title comes from a Civil War-era song about black men in battle — is based not just on a real regiment but on a real figure, Sgt. Richard Etheridge. The son of a slave girl and her master, Richard – everyone in the novel calls him Dick – learned to read and write. He was treated (crucial word) almost like a member of that master’s family.
Faladé, an English professor at the University of Illinois, has previously written about Etheridge. Among his previous books is ‘Fire on the Beach’ (2000), written with David Zoby, which explores Etheridge’s post-war years with a unit that was a precursor to the Coast Guard.
“Black Cloud Rising” focuses almost entirely on Etheridge’s war experience. He looked 21 years young when he signed up. Etheridge says it of one of his soldiers, but it could also be said of him: “He came as a puppy, but sir, he would leave a dog.
The African Brigade served under General Edward Augustus Wild, a white, one-armed, red-bearded abolitionist. In “Fire on the Beach”, Faladé describes Wild’s flowing hair and “piercing eyes – reminiscent of the ascetic gaze of John Brown”.
Wild was a ruthless and defiant warrior: he liked to goad, excite spirits, leave rubble in his path, impose Carthaginian conditions. He emancipated the slaves as he went. The black men who served under him, in “Black Cloud Rising”, admire him deeply. They give him their biggest compliment: they use the N-word to refer to him.
Wild had no intention of sneaking south. He wanted to make a terrifying noise.
In “Absalom, Absalom”, William Faulkner described the sight of young men marching into battle as “probably the most moving mass sight of the entire human mass experience”.
For many Southerners, the arrival of Etheridge and his men was the reversal of that view. The impact of these soldiers on the South was disastrous. The former slaves sounded “Go Down Moses” as they marched. The blue coat was “a fearsome costume on the back of a freed slave”.
Etheridge and his men are aware of the wider impact they have, of what their success means to all African Americans. Etheridge lives far from the mast, as soldiers sometimes say. He knows what will happen to him if he is captured. He feels that he lives on top of a wave.
“Abolitionists hoped that dressing slaves in Union blue and enlisting us in a fight for our own freedom would make us men,” says Etheridge. “The possibility inspired divine awe, a long-awaited witness that the monkey was ready to squeal his own street organ. For Copperheads, the idea that we fully put up with men would be damn near the signal for the apocalypse. It doesn’t wouldn’t be a return of that.
“Black Cloud Rising” becomes a study in divided loyalties. What does Etheridge owe to his father’s family? Trouble comes to a point where he confronts his white half-brother, who is fighting with the Confederates, on the battlefield.
What does he owe to his country and his race? It’s not like racism itself has gone away: At night, black and white Union soldiers gather around separate campfires.
He is ambushed by memories of home. “The line between master and familiar is sometimes a gummy thing,” he thinks. Yet he is aware that “one day they will become white and you their property”.
Etheridge has a wife at home, Fanny. Much to his dismay, she shows up near where the fighting is taking place. Their love story is intense, chaste and entirely winning.
A journalist from the New York Times – he is also inspired by a real character – travels with the Union troops. It’s comic relief; after bragging about wanting to be where the fighting is, he runs like a rabbit when shots are fired. He recounts his reports, mumbling nonsense like “A Sabbath silence brooded over the mire”.
It is in a way Faladé’s first novel. (He co-wrote a young adult novel, “Away Running,” with Luc Bouchard.) There’s blood and nerve in the story he tells.
It appears to be constructed of pine, not mahogany, as if following the advice of poet AR Ammons: “Sometimes the best piece of wood isn’t what you have in mind.