Grove Press, $25.00, 455 pages, ISBN 978-0-8021-2118-9
In 1804, the United States was partitioned, with Spain, France and Great Britain, a young America and numerous Indian Nations laying claim to various parts of her. It was a time when America was in its formative stage, when new land and territory stretched to the western horizons, and the idea of a manifest destiny was being conceived in the minds of American statesmen and patriots. The original thirteen colonies were in the process of being made into states: whittled down to their present day dimensions, with the trimmed off lands forming new states and acting as jumping off places for further westward expansion . . . and the gigantic Louisiana Purchase was still a couple of years away.
At the early part of the nineteenth century, Florida was controlled by Spain and western Florida extended in a hundred mile wide strip all the way to New Orleans which belonged at the time to France. Florida was lawless, full of subsistence settlers; squatters barely able to eke out an existence, fundamentalist preachers, negro slaves and slave masters. With absentee Spaniards in nominal charge, government was non-existent. The area was ripe for revolution. It came in the form of Aaron Burr.
The Blood of Heaven, by Kent Wascom is a debut novel that manages to catch lightning in a bottle, with which he illuminates a dark and little-known event in American history: the attempt by Burr and others to break off West Florida from the United States of America and form a sovereign nation. The story is told through the voice of Angel Woolsack, the amoral, sociopathic son of a hellfire preacher who sets off with his adopted brother, Samuel Kemper, into the disputed lands of West Florida. Desperately poor, he falls into a life of crime, and the schemes of the wealthy planters and slave owners who are attempting secession. When the rebellion falls apart, it is those at the bottom like Woolsack, who pay the price.
The novel is robust and complex, touching on subjects as diverse as family, brotherhood, love, slavery, economics, nationhood, and always with a throbbing, continuous undercurrent of crime and criminality. There’s murder, mayhem and vice throughout this long and complicated novel that will enlighten every reader about a fascinating, and forgotten, element of our nation’s early history . . .