When Tom Franklin published his first work, “Poachers,” a collection of short stories that had critics falling over themselves comparing his dark humor and so-called “Southern Gothic” style with that of William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and even, Cormac McCarthy, my attention was piqued and I made a mental note to read some of his work as quickly as I could. But books get lost in piles where I live and it wasn’t until recently that I tracked down his collection of short stories, as well as his two novels and I started reading. I’m happy to report that young Tom Franklin lives up to such hefty praise with just the kind of fiction I love.
A couple of weeks ago I finished Franklin’s first novel, titled “Hell at the Breech,” although it turned out to be one of those book that you don’t really want to end. It’s that good. It’s a tense and taught tale based on true happenings that until recently were obscure history to all but those generations of farmers who have been born, raised and died in a small section of southwestern Alabama. This strange corner of America which was then at the turn of the 19Th century and still is known as Mitcham Beat. It’s a place where a popular, good old boy and aspiring politician was mysteriously and without reason murdered one foggy night. The murder sets off a string of others intended by his family and friends as payback and retribution. It seems these dirt-poor and ill-educated residents of Mitcham Beat believed that the only way justice could be carried out would be at the barrel of a shotgun, rifle or pistol. Thus, they set out and form a vigilante gang made up of 20 or so farmers, many of them illiterate and easy to manipulate, but all of them intent on seeking revenge.
What ensues is a story in which the truth is more bloody than fiction writer could fashion; a gang war that trips off more than a year of tangible terror called “The Mitcham War” in which men wearing hoods and other forms of disguise ambush all who are either suspected of the murder or who refuse to join their gang. The madness and horror of vigilante justice doesn’t end until the county’s aging sheriff, and a ruthless detective decide enough is enough and bring down the vigilante gang in a a hail of bullets and gunfire; this denouement so savage it soaks the cotton fields and thick forests land in blood thick enough the turn the dirt a darker shade of red. It is a sad and vicious chapter of American history that would become part truth and part legend.
Franklin is a master at narrating the events and growing tensions and crimes that lead to the eventual final massacre. He is also a genius and adept at capturing the nuances and rhythms of conversations between those men and women who populated the fields and farms of Alabama in 1897. And like all great masters of historical fiction, Franklin is also adept at creating fictional folks who represent a composite of the country kin. We meet an elderly midwife who’s delivered almost every resident of the country, bad and good. Franklin creates a delicious dual between the county sheriff and the local judge, both vying for the respect of the local population. And there’s even a traveling salesman with a serious case of Cholera who eats only ears of corn and used the used ears to clean himself after each bout of diarrhea, excusing himself to everyone he meets with the words, “I’m sorry, my stomach is not well.”
The author used as his source for this compelling and spellbinding tale an actual work of non-fiction titled “The Mitcham War of Clarke County, Alabama” written by three individuals who stood witness to this despicably array of bloodshed and what was not documented he speculates on. And he absolutely nails the names and tics of the country folk.
What kept me turned page after page of this first novel were the details, the manner in which these people spoke, laughed, and occasionally, with the help of the county prostitute named Annie, loved. It is with these delicate details that Franklin captures what it must have felt like to have been caught in a crossfire of anger and revenge.
This is a story made up of ambushes, blood oaths and lynchings and severe beatings. The men form allegiances to untrustworthy and unsavory characters who in the end betray both their neighbors and themselves. Franklin, who is noted to have been born just a few miles away from where this war took place seems to know it’s history like a family story. The result is a truthful, brutal account of the Mitcham War, in which Franklin can’t help conceal both a love for the lay of the land and the people, many of them probably his kin, who were caught up in it.
Its an account of a small piece of history that will remain in your consciousness long after the final shot is fired and final page is turned.
It’s truly an authentic hell of a novel.