When A Free Life Is A Death Sentence From Jim Downs

This is the next book I’m going to read.

From the New York Times, Monday, June 11, 2012, under the title, “Liberation as Death Sentence:”

“Professor Downs, 39, is part of a wave of scholars who are sketching out a new, darker history of emancipation…one that recognizes it as a moral watershed while acknowledging its often devastating immediate impact.

At least one-quarter of the four million former slaves got sick or died between 1862 and 1870, Professor Downs writes, including at least 60,000 (the actual number is probably two or three times higher, he argues) who perished in a smallpox epidemic that began in Washington and spread through the South as former slaves traveled in search of work – an epidemic that Professor Downs says he is the first to reconstruct as a national event.

‘For so long, people were afraid to talk bout freed people’s health,’ Professor Downs said. ‘They wanted to talk about agency. But if you have smallpox, you don’t have agency. You can’t even get out of bed.’”

Digging graves in Fredericksburg, Va., in 1864. A million ex-slaves are said to have become sick or died after 1862.
Library of Congress. Timothy H. O’Sullivan. From the NYT.

My novella, Howling Rail, takes places during the Civil War…werewolves hunting runaway slaves. Howling Rail II: Slabtown takes place at a contraband camp in Virginia. I had read that these were not real places of comfort. And just so you know, I’m only about a third/half of the way through writing Slabtown (been there for months even though I know how the story unfolds). But here’s an excerpt from Chapter One. I had already put in plenty of sickness before hearing about Downs’ book. and just wait to you get to the men crawling around on the ground. Unfortunately, that’s after Chapter 1.

From Howling Rail II: Slabtown

Chapter 1

In the five years that had passed since Gideon had led Amaleen from her life of slavery to the life they now shared, they had gone from having nothing, to having less than nothing and back to having nothing again. The war started one morning in April of 1861, halting their journey north to freedom. They settled in a contraband camp near the outskirts of Fort Monroe in Virginia, where they starved with thousands of other former slaves and even whites as the war ravaged through the states.

In their first winter at the camp, Amaleen lost two toes when she awoke from a night’s sleep to find the largest ones on both feet frozen and colored a darkness she had never before seen on the whole of her body. A nurse held her down while a man from inside the fort proclaiming to be a doctor cut off Amaleen’s toes. When they were done, they wrapped her feet like she used to wrap crops with burlap when the early winter came too soon to Mr. Johnson’s farm. Gideon had stood outside the tent as they butchered her, suffering her screams in silence.

The second winter she lost a baby, their first together. They had married after finding out that such a thing was possible at the camp, by then known as Slabtown. Amaleen and Gideon and a long line of others stood together at one time to become husband and wife. One man, though, stood alone, his wife-to-be having died that morning from a disease that had become a regular visitor at the camp and killed more people than the war some days.

All of Amaleen became swollen in a matter of days once she carried the child, not just her stomach. Her legs and ankles carried more weight in them than they should have. Her nose and lips filled her face, and her head grew large and round, almost too big for her body to hold up. When her body grew sick of it all, it pushed the baby out before it was time and then all the rest that had held up in her too. The baby came out dead. Then came the blood and the rest of it for days.

They had thought she would most surely die. But she did not. She held on like old folks sometimes do, not wanting to let go for reasons that no one else knew. But she was young and proved that the young could be just as stubborn as the old. And so she held on for weeks while Gideon cried to himself every night as he went to sleep.

When she finally crossed back over from the almost dead to the almost living, the name she called out was not that of Gideon.


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About the peeling cheek writer

I've been shortchanged. There are not enough hours in the day to do the things I have to do and most certainly not enough to do the things I want to do. You probably feel the same way. Here's my list. A long time ago, I played the clarinet. Now, I pretend to play the piano and the guitar. Having children will do that to you. You think you can do what they can do. So yes, I want to play the guitar and the piano. I forgot how much fun it can be to just hit some keys and make some noise. I want to run. For a long time. Some days, even six miles doesn't feel like enough. I once ran a half marathon. That was a few years ago. I don't think I would last a full. That would take four hours at my pace, and I'm sure I'd have to go to the bathroom. Well, I simply refuse to use one of those portable potties. I want to write. I've been working at it. Even took a one-day course with a local author. I've got about 70,000 words in about twenty-something chapters. Parts of it are just plain evil. I gave the prologue to my husband. He said it scared him. I want to take more family vacations. Just get away. See stuff and do stuff. They don't have to be long vacations. I'll take two or three days, and I'll be satisfied. Just something. Just give me something. We'll go away, me, my husband, and my daughter. You tell me. What's on your list?

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