Desert Isle Keeper
Good Time Coming
I killed a man in the summer I turned thirteen. Sometimes I still see him in my dreams, his eyes as blue as the Gulf on a clear spring morning, his cheeks reddened by the hot Louisiana sun.
So begins a powerful story of the U.S. Civil War as seen through the eyes of an observant and courageous young girl. The brutality of the story is told unflinchingly and in exquisite detail; the grace and beauty of the prose could only come from C.S. Harris.
Ann-Marie St. Pierre “Amrie” lives on a small farm near St. Franciseville, Louisiana, with her mother and their three loyal gens de couleurs libres, free African American servants. Amrie’s Catholic French Creole father is off serving in the Confederate army in Virginia and his absence, Amrie’s Episcopalian mother becomes the doctor-on-call for all the neighboring towns between Port Hudson and Vicksburg along the Mississippi.
While Amrie’s parents are abolitionists – they’ve manumitted all the slaves they had acquired from Amrie’s grandparents – they live in peace alongside their neighbors of opposing views. A common pitiless enemy, the Unionists, has a way of uniting its victims.
One day, Amrie and her best friend Finn O’Reilly are playing in the swamps near the town of Bayou Sara, when they hear the rat-a-tat-tat of drums along the river and run to the levée to see a Union gunboat steaming past them and pulling up to a stop near the wharfboat. The Federals put to shore in a longboat where Amrie comes face-to-face with what men in power can do, enacting all acts of cruelty – big and small – on everyone – children and adults alike. The captain rips her most prized necklace from her neck to give as a gift to his little girl.
The bookseller Henshaw explains to her:
“Those men are utterly convinced that God marches at their side. As far as they’re concerned, they’ve embarked on a holy crusade against evil personified with you and I cast into the role of Satan. And in a war against the devil, anything is permissible. Anything.”
And yet, the people of Louisiana continued to believe for a very long time that “no country of mine would ever collectively punish the innocent for the actions of a few.” They were to be sadly disabused of this notion very quickly as atrocity after atrocity was committed on them.
All throughout the book, Amrie ruminates over why the Federal soldiers behaved as they did. Their actions should have been a disgrace to their uniform, to their humanity. And yet, they behaved as thieves, rapists, and murderers, with no aim in their rampaging progress through town but to destroy everything in sight, for no gain and no discernible reason.
It’s as if they didn’t see Rose Lacroix and those poor young girls as human beings at all – as people with feeling and hopes and dreams and needs – but as tools to be used for revenge.
As Amrie painfully realizes, wanton destruction of property is not simply loss of things, but it’s a loss of memories – memories that define all aspects of current life, events, and people; and that should be passed down into the future to grandchildren.
Amrie mourns over all that she’s lost, but after every loss, she hopes, as the child she is, for a better tomorrow, where the soldiers will cease tormenting civilians and where the war will be over, regardless of which side wins. But she also wonders :
“How does a society ever come back from this kind of chaos and brutality? What happens when violence becomes an everyday way of life? When hatred festers and twists and distorts a people’s soul?”
Up and down the Mississippi, people are in motion, abandoning homes, farms, plantations, and villages near the river as marauding bands of soldiers and seamen run amok among the civilians. Their world is dissolving around them, yet Amrie’s mother cannot countenance such a move. Amrie realizes that to her, their home is on their small farm near St. Francisville and that’s where she means to stay till the war is over and Amrie’s father comes home. Until then, she’ll endure and provide whatever medical aid she’s able to provide.
Before the war, the South treated its women like delicate flowers. Yet with all the men, except the infirm and the old, off to war, the women have to step up to do the work of men: managing plantations, plowing and harvesting farms, feeding and caring for animals and so on. As the months draw on, the book shows how the women take on more and more of the men’s roles in order to survive, to the extent that even at a social knitting party, they discuss politics and classified information.
History is truly well-researched in this book, down to the type of “coffee” served to guests. Real coffee stopped arriving from the North once the blockade went into effect. So enterprising women use roasted okra seeds and roasted acorns as coffee beans.
Accents in this book are written out sparingly and very effectively. Amrie’s long-time colorful retainer, Mahalia, has an adversarial relationship with Amrie’s dog Checkers, whom she frequently berates.
“You get out of my kitchen, you. You so much as thick of lookin’ at that chicken again, and I swear, I’ll crack your big ugly black head with this here rolling pin. You hear?”
I enjoyed seeing how the natural plants, particularly the flowering ones, affected the tone of the story and how they reflected the emotional tenor of the scenes. Ms. Harris is an avid gardener and she’s a Louisiana native, so her knowledge of flora is not simply research-based but deeply personal, and it shows.
One quibble I have with the book is the end-of-chapter manner of blatant foreshadowing – “if I had only known then what I know now” or “it hadn’t occurred to me yet” or “I would learn all too soon” – which I found to be an annoying affectation to attempt to ratchet up the tension. However, what it does instead is break up the tautness of the build-up to the end of the chapter and signals to the reader that they needn’t have cared as much as they did in this one, because it’s going to get worse in the next chapter. This falsifies their emotional and intellectual response to the story.
In ever complex layers, Good Time Coming shows how the Civil War affected life in the small towns of Louisiana. What to the rest world must have appeared to be a righteous war of unionization and abolition is very different up close and personal. In the minutiae, it’s like any other war, where people die in the thousands and hundreds of depredations are committed on the innocent. There’s no glory, there’s no valor, at least in the eyes of a thirteen-year-old girl.