If you thought the Wild West was wild, wait until you read about West Florida. In Kent Wascom’s stunning debut novel that territory serves as microcosm of a nation’s dark and violent infancy.
In the years during and after the American Revolution, West Florida, actually a territory stretching from Florida’s modern Panhandle to the Mississippi River, was variously under the rule of Spain and England and, briefly, an independent state. Tucked into the corner between the French Louisiana Territory and the newborn United States, West Florida was, in 1799, a frontier as bountiful, bloody and embattled as any in American history.
That is the year we meet young Angel Woolsack, Wascom’s narrator. He’s barely in his teens when the man he calls Preacher-father leads him and a ragtag band of followers to the unpromising Chit Valley in what is now Missouri, having been driven out of other places. “It was a hard time to be a Baptist,” Angel tells us. “The tar was always bubbling then and there were many who had no love for preaching.”
The brand of Christianity that Preacher-father promulgates, and that his son inherits, is beyond fire and brimstone. When a band of polygamists settles nearby, he leads a fatal raid, justifying slaughter with Scripture (a recurring theme).
But Preacher-father will meet his own terrible fate, and Angel will attach himself to Samuel Kemper, the son of another preacher. They will undergo a perilous quest south to find Samuel’s brother Reuben, a near-legendary figure: “The eldest Kemper had thrashed fourteen men in an Ohio tavern with nothing but a busted chamberpot, sat on riverdocks reading the philosophies of the Greeks in one hand and lifting sugar barrels with the other, had never married for there was no woman who could content him.” (The brothers are loosely based on historical figures.)
Reuben, who does indeed change Angel’s and Samuel’s lives, is just one of the larger-than-life figures in The Blood of Heaven. In a surreal castle of a whorehouse in Natchez, Angel meets “a girl with hair the color of fresh-spilt blood.” Red Kate, as she’s called, is a 14-year-old orphan, the only survivor of a raid on her family’s homestead by marauding Creeks.
In bed, Angel confesses to her about the blood on his own hands, although he fears she’ll be repulsed. Kate tells him coolly that she was captured by the Creeks; after a few weeks with an Indian family, she “took up a hatchet and hacked them apart” and escaped.
It’s a love match. “You’re a miracle,” Angel tells her. “Every demon in Hell would hang their heads in shame.”
Their fierce union will endure much, which is lucky, because much will try them. As an adopted Kemper, Angel will become embroiled in border wars and betrayals, lawsuits and land disputes that lead to armed attacks, plagues and floods and much more. He will even come under the influence of Aaron Burr, who is scheming to make himself ruler of Mexico after being ejected in disgrace from the new United States’ capital after his single term as vice president to Thomas Jefferson (whom Angel calls “the atheist in Washington”) and his infamous duel with Alexander Hamilton.
Wascom, a New Orleans native, attended Louisiana State University, earned an MFA from Florida State University and lives in Tallahassee, so he’s familiar with the territory where his book takes place. He imbues the novel with historical detail lovely and not; his description of the early 19th century cure for gonorrhea will have male readers doubling over their laps.
With its setting, its violence-driven plot and its resonant and often harshly beautiful language, The Blood of Heaven evokes comparison to the work of Cormac McCarthy. Its mordant humor and its exploration of slavery and violence as the tragic flaws at the heart of American history — as well as its awareness of what hellish danger awaits those who are sure God is on their side — recall such writers as William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain. Angel is a terrifying and irresistible narrator, and Kent Wascom is a striking new voice in American fiction.
Colette Bancroft reviewed this book for The Tampa Bay Times.