Gifted novelist Louise Meriweather followed Daddy Was a Number Runner with Fragments of the Ark (Pocket Books/Simon and Schuster) a fascinating work of “faction” — well-crafted, fictional characters in an exciting tale steeped in a setting of historic fact. It’s something of, as it were, a blast from the past, having been published in 1994. Nonetheless, this is fluid, image-rich writing, capturing the African American aesthetic with strength and an expert grasp of Black culture circa the Civil War. A perfect companion for idle hours, the book is an irresistible page-turner.
In late fall 1861, true to the war’s timeline, the Union Army — outmaneuvered and outmanned — is catching hell from the Confederacy, which, aided by the British, are not far from completely turning the tide inexorably toward triumph. Laboring in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina, one group of slaves tasked with staffing a warship are close to the gunfire, watching the Yankee navy approach, readying to battle for control of this vitally strategic location.
Rebel seamen, absolutely contemptuous of what they consider a bunch of dumb darkies, are caught with their britches down one evening. Captain and crew are ashore when Peter Mango leads several fellow slaves on an ingenious maneuver, stealing the ship and, in the pitch black of night, sailing right past the fort sentries and delivering it straight into the hands of the enemy.
This daring move, risking the hangman’s noose on the spot, more than an isolated instance of guile and guts, sets in motion events that propel Mango, his co-conspirators and their loved ones headlong into the proverbial date with destiny. They are part of a fateful event when President Lincoln, having his hand forced, finally agrees to one, declare slaves in the North and South free, and two, allow freed Black men to enlist in the armed forces.
This is fluid, image-rich writing, capturing the African American aesthetic with strength and an expert grasp of Black culture circa the Civil War.
The result being, of course, that the Confederacy now begins catching its own fair share of pure hell in the war that, though the balance of power has shifted, is far from over. And will exact a cruel cost in savaged humanity.
The beauty of Meriweather’s book is the painstaking realism with which she renders her characters and their circumstances. It is also refreshing to follow the relationship between Peter and his wife, Rain, as they fend off the fear of returning to bondage, endure the separation of his going off to fight for their freedom, and steadfastly go through the natural ups and downs of holding onto love despite sometimes misunderstanding one another and sometimes simply wanting different things, determined, bottom line, to pull through the madness around them together.
As well, of course, it’s interesting to see the author infuse her work with inarguable authenticity, referring to martyred abolitionist John Brown, bringing in the likes of Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and more, including the Union’s legendary 54th Infantry. She eschews the insulting romanticism of Glory, the silly film that supposedly paid homage to the soldiers and to the army, laying plain the grotesque brutality that prevailed in the siege of Fort Wagner.
For the record, Col. Robert Shaw did not volunteer his men to lead that charge. They were ordered into a situation in which the only possible outcome was that 300 Black men would be slaughtered while White soldiers brought up the rear, taking comparatively few casualties.
This underscores another admirable aspect of Meriweather’s storytelling: She dispels the cherished delusion that the North led a noble fight to free downtrodden Africans in America out of conscientious commitment to do the right thing in the cause for freedom, so on and so forth. She shows blue-belly Union invaders bullying and beating up Black men and raping Black women for recreation and Lincoln not giving a damn one way or the other about slavery (in fact, he initially ordered that Union soldiers, in looting plantations, were not to interfere with slaveholders’ rights to two-legged livestock).
She also points out how valuable Blacks (Tubman, soldiers, everyday men and women) were in scouting the southern terrain that they knew like the backs of their hands. Not to mention as guides, seeing to it White soldiers got in and out of tricky places on guerilla raids with their hides intact.
Perhaps her most telling feat is that, relating a suspenseful saga of horror and hope, Louise Meriweather, in Fragments of the Ark, brings it to a powerful climax that concludes, quite believably, on a warmhearted note.