Two years after the end of the Civil War, the people of Franklin, Tennessee are learning to live with the new status quo. Black people are legally free and establishing themselves economically and politically in the town. Mariah Reddick, as a highly skilled midwife, is doing well for herself. But there are some (quite a few, actually) white men and women who very much do not like the new status quo and are willing to use violence to keep the newly freed enslaved people “in their place.” In The Orphan Mother, by Robert Hicks, Mariah and her son get caught in the chaos of an election season. When her son is killed, Mariah seeks justice. She’s not alone, because a former sniper is willing to go outside the law to punish the men who killed Mariah’s son.
Mariah told her son Theopolis not to go to the political rally that day in 1867. No one wants to hear a black man speak, even if things have changed since the end of the war. They haven’t changed enough. Sure enough, Theopolis is beaten by several men and is killed when fighting breaks out even before the speeches can start. We knew something was going to happen because Mariah is not the only protagonist of this book. George Tole’s story is interwoven with Mariah’s; they alternate chapters as protagonists. Tole has been hired by the man who essentially runs the town, Elijah Dixon, to assassinate a rival political, Republican Jesse Bliss. At the beginning of the novel, Dixon tells Tole that his “boys” will make trouble while Tole shoots Bliss. The boys make too much trouble and a riot breaks out.
The riot and the deaths of the innocent people caught in the fighting mean that Franklin will soon see federal investigators poking into everything. Grieving Mariah hopes that the investigators will punish the men who killed Theopolis, but she also relies on a network of friends and people who owe her favors to find the names of the men who beat her son. Meanwhile, Tole conducts his own rougher investigation into the events of the day, ignoring Dixon’s escalating fury with him. Tole’s motivations are a little murky. He is attracted to Mariah, but he hardly knows her and only knew her son by reputation.
Mariah and Tole’s opposing investigations were very interesting to watch. Some of the tension of the book comes from figuring out who would achieve some kind of justice for Theopolis first. Both characters have to operate outside the law to a certain extent. Mariah is optimistic, but not so naïve as to think that her son’s murder will be the primary objective of the federal investigators.
In the author’s note at the end of The Orphan Mother, Hicks addresses potential criticism some readers may have about a white man writing the story of a formerly enslaved woman and mother. Hicks makes the point that he relies on his sense of empathy to try and understand the emotions and actions of such a woman. I’m not sure he entirely succeeds, but only because so much space in the book is given over to Tole. I picked up this book for Mariah, but the tormented Union sniper fascinated me. His plot arc is more tightly composed than Mariah’s meandering path through grief. I don’t want to blame Hicks for this. I don’t know if there’s much an author can do when a more interesting character barges into a story.
While there are some problems with The Orphan Master, overall I enjoyed reading this portrait of life in Reconstruction Era Tennessee. The mystery elements of this novel are particularly well done. Hicks clearly did his homework on the political wranglings of the South after the Civil War and the tensions between black and white Southerners of the time.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 September 2016.