While many fiction titles have examined the tremendous devastation, both human and economic, of the Civil War, not so mnay have examined the first months after the South's surrender as well as Lynn Austin has done in her new novel, All Things New. During the last months of the war, Josephine Weatherly, her mother Eugenia, and younger sister Mary had sought safety in their home of their city relatives. Now after the war's end, they return to their plantation White Oaks to find it in ruins. Within days, David, the youngest son and only remaining male, makes his way home, a defeated, weary soldier. Despite being almost penniless themselves, Eugenia and David expect to cling to the old ways. They treat Lizzie and Otis, the only former slaves who have remained on the plantation, as if they are still slaves, when really they have agreed to be share croppers/servants. Out of desperation and boredom, Josephine begins to do a little physical labor - gardening, dishes, and sewing to help her family survive. Her efforts are met with shock and disdain, but slowly Eugenia sees that the effort is necessay. Eugenia's changes are bolstered by her interactions with the family doctor, once considered beneath her social class, but now her best friend. Josephine, despite her strong pronouncement that she will never pray again, finds her heart mending as she meets the young Quaker, Alexander Chandler sent to run the Freedmen's Bureau. As both Josephine and Eugenia change, David holds fast to the Old South and becomes a member of what is definitely a precursor to the KKK.
Meanwhile Lizzie and Otis tread unsure waters as freed people. They rejoice when their children are allowed to start attending the Freedmen's Bureau School, but remain frightened to travel at night or beyond the borders of the plantation. Other former slaves basically live homeless and in limbo as they wait and wait for changes that have been promised. Meanwhile hateful whites try to regain control that they feel they have been destined to have.
Lynn Austin's characters have depth and complexity which give the story a multi-layered richness.
An excellent example of such careful character development is Harrison, the amputee neighbor. Although a relatively minor character, Austin has given him significant importance as she explores the themes of guilt and remorse. I felt most everything in the novel was spot on realistic, except for one aspect. It seems that all the slaves (former slaves) were virtual strangers to Eugenia. She didn't know that Otis and Lizzie were a family and had children. She didn't even know names. Considering that she had lived on the plantation for over 25 years, I believe she would have known these things, even if her husband had been in charge. Even if she had been demeaning to her house and driver slaves, I think she would have still known their names. Despite that, Lynn Austin's newest work shows that she is an expert story teller. Flawed people live with the consequences of their actions, but change. Without spoiling the story, I must say, be prepared for one of the best examples of grace I've ever found in fiction.
Check out Lynn Austin's website to see her other books. She has won multiple Christy Awards and her titles are always a sure hit.