Slant of Light, by Steve Wiegenstein

The subtitle of Wiegenstein’s Ozarks story is “a Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War,” and that’s exactly what it is. In 1851, in Leavenworth, Kansas, an army colonel’s daughter, Charlotte Sumner, falls in love with a visionary author and lecturer named James Turner. After a quick courtship, the two marry, and then Mr. Turner goes on the road again. He makes his living as a lecturer, reading from his utopian novel, Daybreak. And then a wonderful (or terrible) thing happens: a man from the Missouri Ozarks offers Turner a large piece of fertile land where he can put his cerebral notions to a real-world test. Turner names his new colony Daybreak.

Wiegenstein is a scholar of the Icarian Movement, an early communist group with origins in France, led by Étienne Cabet, who like Turner wrote a utopian novel (Voyage en Icarie) that inspired myriad followers. There were a number of such movements in the 1840s through the 1850s, and many founded their settlements on the rapidly vanishing frontier, from the Amana Colonies in Iowa to the Mormons in Utah. The Icarians were unique, or nearly so, in that they were secular, believing in the perfectability of humankind through hard work and a rigid egalitarianism. They founded a vigorous colony in Nauvoo, Illinois (after the Mormons left) and then splintered off to a long-lived settlement in southwest Iowa, and a short-lived effort in St. Louis. Wiegenstein places his settlement, not specifically Icarian, east of Cape Girardeau, in Madison County, along the St. Francis River.

Back to Charlotte. She resents being left with her father while her husband pursues his utopian dreams, and she makes the arduous trip to Daybreak with a new friend, the third major character, Adam Cabot. Adam is an intellectual Easterner and abolitionist who, like Turner, wants to direct his idealism toward practical goals. Wiegenstein hints early on that Charlotte and Adam will fall in love, but they are both highly-principled and nothing happens for a while.

With brutally hard work—pulling stumps and the like—Turner and his followers turn the land into an agricultural commune, and with some success. There’s a catch, however. You can set up your independent community, but you still need a market for what you produce. A sympathetic merchant in Fredericktown buys wheat, and the commune’s one factory operation, making rope from hemp, begins to turn a profit. Even so, Turner is forced to return to the lecture circuit for infusions of cash. It’s not a lack of work, or even of cash, that threatens the colony, however. It’s the imperfection of human beings.

For one thing, Turner has a wandering eye, and cheats on Charlotte with a pretty young French girl, impregnating her. Charlotte and Adam keep their desires more or less in check, but they are lustful all the same, and Charlotte’s outrage over her husband’s indiscretion seems somewhat hypocritical. The colony may be communal, but not when it comes to sex and marriage and child-rearing.

James Turner’s foibles don’t stop with adultery. Protecting the colony from enemies, he murders a man for the greater good, and informs on a Confederate sympathizer whose claim on Daybreak probably has legal standing.  Turner is a seriously flawed human being, posing the question whether a noble experiment can be more noble than its flawed adherents.

What if Turner had been a better man? What if Charlotte’s and his marriage had truly been a peerless model? What if Adam Cabot—the best of them all, and a true hero—had been the one in charge, rather than James Turner?

Probably, it wouldn’t have mattered, because the greatest human foible of all, war, comes to the settlement. Try as he must to keep Daybreak neutral, even spurning attempts to turn Daybreak into a stop on the Underground Railroad, Turner is Unionist. Federal troops are everywhere. But so are Confederate irregulars, and Daybreak itself becomes a battlefield. Afterwards, the settlement remains, but the reader wonders whether it can survive. Wiegenstein addresses that question in a sequel, This Old World.

Steve Wiegenstein runs a cogent website concerning what might be called the cultural life of the Ozarks, at http://www.stevewiegenstein.com/home. He is also an accomplished,  ironic speaker, and you can probably bring him in to talk about all things Ozarks—and his own fine books.

 

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