The Wheelman: How the Slave Robert Smalls Stole a Warship and Became King by Marshall Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Robert Smalls worked as a wheelman on coastal vessels with his pay going to his master. One day in the midst of the Civil War he and a crew of conspiratorial slaves, including their families, stole the Planter from under the noses of the Confederate sentries and took it out of Charleston Harbor, past Fort Sumter. Smalls tricked the gunners in Sumter by sounding the coded signals that convinced them he was the rightful pilot of the vessel. He steamed straight to the Union blockade and surrendered the Planter. For this he was made a captain and later a general in the Union Army. He participated in numerous battles, and after the war, became the de facto king of Beaufort County. His accolades include convincing Lincoln to allow black soldiers into the Union Army, serving in the South Carolina legislature, the federal House and Senate and organizing a Negro band in the quaint town of Beaufort.
The Wheelman is told in vignettes by a long series of storytellers, including a modern day narrator with a huge load of excess baggage. This is a fascinating historical novel that delves into the evils of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, twentieth century racism and close, personal racial attitudes. It also confronts internecine crises—suicides and mental illness. Mr. Evans has written a novel that relates an historical event with intimate knowledge of the setting and the attitudes of the players. He interweaves modern places and events with murky connections to the past. This is brilliantly done. I applaud this book, and in my mind’s eye, I saw every scene. It is a masterful work. In addition, for the first time in many months, I have read a book, whether self-published or traditionally published, in which I saw not one error.
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