Battle Cry of Freedom
As the Civil War approaches, a free black family in Georgetown must fight for real liberation.
STAND THE STORM
By Breena Clarke
Little, Brown. 321 pp. $24.99
I loved this book. I loved these people: The Coats family of Stand the Storm are quasi-free Negroes living in Georgetown just before, during and after the Civil War. Breena Clarke has written another stirring work of historical fiction that weaves the passionate, dramatic and uplifting story of the African American aspiration for true freedom into the great American tapestry.
Sewing Annie, whose husband had been sold away by her owner, Jonathan Ridley, knew that slaves with special skills were last to be sold. So she determined to teach her two children, Gabriel and Ellen, everything she knew about sewing, weaving, knitting, dyeing and the magical lore of quilts. "A woman whose every day was applied to the task of survival," Sewing Annie not only taught Gabriel about scissors and cloth; she taught him how to study whites without their knowing it, and how to disarm them. "Don't let them read your eyeballs," she says. "Keep them low and quiet."
At the age of 10, while still a slave, Gabriel is hired out to Georgetown tailor Abraham Pearl. Privately disapproving of slavery, Pearl treats Gabriel as an apprentice and assistant. Eight years later, Pearl decides to sell his shop to Ridley and move west -- leaving Gabriel a chest full of regulation military buttons. Keeping all profits for himself, Ridley puts Gabriel in charge of the business but makes his treacherous nephew the overseer. Annie handles the overseer by providing the perfect cup of hot black coffee for his daily hangovers: "Annie thus charmed him and became certain of him." The Coats family even earns his grudging respect: "Aye, they are limited by their race, but these are clever and cunning beasts."
The nephew is always proposing money scams to Ridley. Because they have been quasi-free, the Coatses fall for the biggest scam of all -- "to sell the slaves to themselves" -- letting them buy their own freedom while keeping them under white control. Still, for the first time in their lives, the Coatses belong to themselves: "The three were free to plan -- to look forward and to say how things could be."
As Washington prepares for conflict, Gabriel secretly answers an ad from the U.S. government for tailors. With Pearl's legacy of buttons, he wins a contract to make uniforms for the Army. It's a great opportunity for him, but most blacks in Washington are deeply worried about the rebels: "Would the secesh overrun the town," they wonder, "and sell all colored back into slavery?" Though he's on the threshold of business success, Gabriel enlists in the Union Army, having realized that "he was not fully free! He was only not as bound as others. For this he resolved to fight the war." The author follows Gabriel into battle, including the bloody siege of Petersburg where black troops drove back the Confederates at great cost.
A central theme of Stand the Storm is the Coatses' struggle to forge new identities and free themselves from the legacy of slavery. On the Ridley plantation, female slaves were "generally called by a variation of the name Ann." Annie's first gesture of freedom, while still a slave, was to name her daughter Ellen. In her first moment of joy at belonging to herself, she changed her name from Sewing Annie to Annie Coats. Later, she recommends that fresh start to her son's wife, too. When Carrie was a slave, she had been nearly beaten to death by her mistress because she was raped by the master. "Commence calling yourself Mary then," Annie tells her. "It will make a change." What happened to Carrie, the slave, has nothing to do with the self-liberated new person, Mary.
Stand the Storm reads like a great 19th-century page-turner, like Oliver Twist or the masterful Uncle Tom's Cabin. There is even the requisite cast of memorable secondary characters, among them Daniel Joshua, a runaway slave who teaches Gabriel how to survive in the woods and in Georgetown; Rev. William Higgins, a young white Catholic priest, friend to runaways, with secrets of his own; Jacob Millrace, a free Negro breeder of hunting dogs; Blue Girl, so called because her arms and hands are blue from indigo dyeing; and copper-haired Delia, who passes for white.
This is a novel about identity, about the power of talent and about freedom and constriction in life. Breena Clarke writes in a deceptively simple and subtle style, with an almost perfect sense of period and history. (There is only one minuscule imperfection: The word "quisling," named for a Norwegian Nazi, was not used until World War II.)
I loved Stand the Storm on its own, but Sewing Annie made me think of my own great-great-great-great-grandmother. Using her talents as a cook in Newnan, Ga., over a period of 20 years, Sinai Reynolds sold enough pies, cakes and homemade ginger beer to buy freedom for herself, her husband and her younger children and move to Chicago before the Civil War began. Clearly, there were many people like the Coats family -- determined to be free to carve their own piece of the American dream. We all know stories of the great black exceptions, but Breena Clarke writes about ordinary people who happen to be exceptional. ·
Gail Buckley is the author of "The Hornes: An American Family" and "American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm."