This Old World is the sequel to Slant of Light (https://downalongthepiney.com/2018/01/10/slant-of-light-by-steve-wiegenstein/), Wiegenstein’s portrait of a 19th Century, egalitarian community set in southeast Missouri. The Civil War is over but the little colony, called Daybreak, has been decimated by bushwhackers and can barely feed itself. The war took most of the men, and few return. As one woman observes, “Two husbands, three boys, three homes lost. That’s what life gives you, but do not try to hold onto it. You’ll just bring yourself pain.”
Charlotte Turner has become the leader by default, though she’s a born leader, versatile and practical, and probably should have been in charge all along. James Turner, the starry-eyed founder, finally returns, but he’s a ruined man. He dreams of the soldiers he saw dying, and Wiegenstein is awfully good at portraying combat with its randomness and lack of glory.
Several minor characters come into prominence and carry the story. Charley Pettibone, an Arkansas Confederate, is forced to confront the humanity of a levelheaded ex-slave, Dathan, and thereby his own humanity. Michael Flynn is a Unionist so full of anger he can’t settle down to family life, though he tries mightily.
All three interact with the Law and Order League, a motley crew of bushwhackers, somewhere between Baldknobbers and the Ku Klux Klan, that clashes with Daybreak and with Michael Flynn. Dathan emerges as a quiet hero, always there in times of crisis, even as he stays one jump ahead of the white thugs. Briefly, the likable but troubled Pettibone joins the Law and Order League, but he has second thoughts, in part because Dathan confounds his prejudices.
Flynn works like a madman to establish a farm and raise cattle, but can’t control his anger. He courts the Frenchwoman, Marie, and out of despair, and grief for all the war has cost her, she marries Flynn. Then a plague of bad luck descends, and Flynn nearly kills the blameless Marie.
In service of Daybreak and his own conscience, Pettibone goes after the unfortunate, doomed Flynn. He becomes a sheriff’s deputy and a new leader of the settlement. Pettibone is at the core of Daybreak’s renaissance. He finds an admiring young wife to soothe his soul, and he faces the future with modest optimism.
The title This Old World implies weariness, and certainly Charlotte, James, and Marie—central characters in Slant of Light—are weary. This Old World, however, is fast-paced and efficient, and the weariness and wreckage of war is in the end replaced with hard-won hope. It’s almost as though hope is the only thing that remains.
Movement from the first novel to the second is seamless, but it’s tempting to say that Wiegenstein’s quiet sequel surpasses his original.