The Fathers by Allen Tate

The Fathers cover

I bought this book, a Penguin Modern Classic, because I liked the cover, so shallow of me I know, but the subject matter interested me too. It popped up in an Edinburgh second-hand bookshop. The cover shows a detail from The Plantation c.1825, is by an unknown American artist and is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

It’s about the beginnings of the American Civil War and how it affected the lives of the Buchan family and the story is told by Lacy Buchan who is now an old man looking back to the events of 50 years before, but his story begins with the death of his mother when he was just a teenager and his family is gathering for the funeral at Pleasant Hill, Virginia.

For some reason Lacy hero-worships George Posey who has married Susan Buchan, Lacy’s sister. I say for some reason because for the life of me I can’t see anything to admire about the man.

The two families are vastly different, Major Buchan, of Scottish descent has the manners of a gentleman and is crushed by his wife’s death. The Buchans see themselves as Southern aristocracy, but they’re poverty stricken. Major Buchan leaves the running of his estate to his son-in-law George, which is a bit like putting the child-catcher in charge of an orphanage.

George has only one interest in life really, the making of money, and George even sells his own half-brother Yellow Jim – a slave, as he tells him he’s liquid money. Even Lacy suspects George of brutality towards Susan, so it’s no surprise when the civil war begins that George’s interest in it is the chance to make a profit.

I enjoyed this book, which is apparently quite neglected and only read in academic circles in the US. Obviously the two families are supposed to represent the different factions of the civil war, and after the events of this week (the Obama/Romney election) it’s obvious that the US is still a country which is very much split in two in some ways. A lot of people aren’t happy about the result but when you think of the alternative of all out civil war, instead of sorting things out, you have to say the election was a triumph, whatever the outcome.

If you want to read more about the book and author have a look at this interesting article from The Washington Post.