Hell at the Breech, by Tom Franklin

Oaths of blood in a land of gun law
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The Independent Culture

This novel has been compared to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain but it is better: more story and less botany. It is the gripping narrative of a gang of Alabaman outlaws in the remote Mitcham Beat, a settlement deep in the land of corn, cotton and indentured labour - the closest thing to slavery the law allowed in 1897. This is a land which nature has endowed with immense natural wealth, but where human beings are engaged in bleeding one another dry, a bone-poor community except for a few store-owners and bankers, where share-croppers are desperately in debt.

This novel has been compared to Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain but it is better: more story and less botany. It is the gripping narrative of a gang of Alabaman outlaws in the remote Mitcham Beat, a settlement deep in the land of corn, cotton and indentured labour - the closest thing to slavery the law allowed in 1897. This is a land which nature has endowed with immense natural wealth, but where human beings are engaged in bleeding one another dry, a bone-poor community except for a few store-owners and bankers, where share-croppers are desperately in debt.

Here the "Hell at the Breech" gang is born, swearing mutual loyalty with oaths of blood. A sequence of murderous events is triggered by the death of a shopkeeper, but the gang enforces silence. So there are no witnesses when a middle-aged Sheriff with aching bones and a powerful taste for liquor rides out to solve the mystery and bring the culprits to justice.

From this background of violence and struggle come not only the Sheriff and the storekeeper whose murder prompts the investigation, and the final encounter, but the stories of a pair of brothers forced into joining the violence of the gang.

Orphaned young, the boys have been raised by an enigmatic figure known as "the widow". The local midwife and a figure from an innocent pre-monetary world, she stands for the beneficent elements of nature struggling against the cruelties of gun law and commercial entanglements, and gives the book a level which raises it above a brutal saga of bullets. The shoot-outs are unremittingly violent, and there is a truly chilling villain manipulating both the Sheriff and the gang for his own ends.

The great strength of Tom Franklin's book is that, though there are heroes and villains, they are shown in the wider context of a people driven to desperation by poverty and cruelty. Casual brutalities are inflicted on children and animals; characters are deformed by it. A farmer forces his wife to work in the fields just after she has given birth; a tiny child is left starving; the drowning of puppies is a routine necessity. The posse is nearly as vicious as the gang they hunt, and just as willing to execute lynch law.

All this is told at a fast pace, in a novel that remains mercifully free of that didactic whiff of old encyclopaedias, the "now I'm-going-to-tell-you-about-our-past" solemnity, that mars too much American historical writing.

Intense and precise details explore both the natural and human worlds. One can almost touch and smell the landscapes. The general store, with its tidy shelves, tins of tuberose-scented snuff and bottles of turpentine, forms a powerful symbolic contrast with the nature that lies beyond the edges of cultivation. Here the legendary Bear Thicket is almost impenetrably dense, and wild vines and Spanish moss defy human order.

The reviewer's novel 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan

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