I don’t know why we teach students the old plot diagram any more. Sure, it still works for a lot of stories, but authors seem to be experimenting more and more with the structure of stories. The traditional plot diagram doesn’t work at all for Secessia, by Kent Wascom. There’s a dramatis personae at the beginning of this book and thank goodness for it. After a prologue that centers on one of the main characters, the book takes turns taking readers inside the minds of a possibly murderous widow, her angry and grieving son, the widow’s lover, the girl her son loves, and an occupying Union general. Each of the characters is acting out their own story, frequently intersecting each other’s stories. Set during the occupation of New Orleans during the Civil War, Secessia is a book in which domestic drama becomes even more heightened because it takes place in a city that might become an active war zone at any moment.
Secessia trades on the image of New Orleans as a decadent city, a place that has been isolated so long that its people have become a little (or more than a little) strange. The prologue, for example, introduces us to Elise and Emile. Elise has been talked into an alcove by an amorous young man. The next thing we know, Elise has bitten the youth’s earlobe of and she runs for it, with Emile in tow. Elise is violent when provoked and Emile is attracted to the violence in her. Later, Emile and Elise still tangle together. She needs his protection—financial and legal—and he seeks to tame her. One reading of the book would be the battle between the two of them for dominance. Their story is disturbing and hypnotic.
In contrast to Elise and Emile, we have Joseph (Elise’s son) and Marina. Marina’s parents died in the shipwreck that saw Marina fetching up in New Orleans (after a short detention by Union forces that have just retaken New Orleans). The pair of them are attracted to each other. While Elise and Emile carry on their jaded sexual affair, Marina and Joseph are barely allowed to speak to each other by their adult caretakers. Still, with people like Elise and Emile and Marina’s uncle’s mistress looking out for these two teens, one has to wonder if they will managed to stay away from the previous generation’s darkness.
This would probably be enough for anyone, but then Wascom drops actual historical figure, General Benjamin Franklin Butler, right into the middle of everything. Butler’s job is to pacify the formerly confederate city. He has only about 10,000 men to hold the entire southern half of New Orleans. The men of New Orleans are hard enough to keep a lid on, but the women are even worse. The woman of New Orleans harass Union soldiers in the street to the point where Butler actually gave this order in May 1862:
One might feel sorry for Butler (at least if one isn’t from New Orleans). After all, New Orleans was a rebel city, on the side of people who wanted to own slaves. One might feel sorry until its revealed that Butler and his brothers have their fingers in all kinds of money-spinning schemes. There are no innocents in Secessia.
Because this book, with its five protagonists and antagonists (who is who depends on which character is narrating at the time), does not follow the traditional plot line, it’s hard to predict where it’s all going. Is this is a story of Elise getting revenge on the men in her life? Is it a story of two young people escaping their forebearers’ legacies? Is it a story of a city that carries on when disaster strikes? It’s all and none of these things. The characters defy expectations at every turn.
Secessia is a novel that’s going to divide readers. Some readers will enjoy the fractured narrative because it does play around with expectations. Others will just be annoyed. Even though I’ve finished the book, I’m not at all sure which side of the divide I’m on.