My friend, A.B. Westrick’s historical novel, Brotherhood, has recently been published by Viking. It’s got a dynamic set up: post Civil War in the South after a bitter, destructive defeat, and a main character who is torn between wanting to better himself and his fatherless family, and doing the ethical, difficult work of seeing people for who they truly are. The reader gets up close and personal with both a freed slave who tries to teach the main character to read, and meetings of the early Ku Klux Klan. I asked Anne some questions about her approach to this unique novel.
LMc: Brotherhood is set in the period after the Civil War, which was the bloodiest and most divisive war our country has ever known. How did that setting inform and shape the story’s plot and theme?
AW: The setting, Reconstruction, affected everything. Defeated in the war, white Southerners felt angry and grieved massive losses of family members, friends, and property. They resented the presence of the foreign militia (Northerners) patrolling the streets, and their actions were often reactive rather than proactive. The setting allowed me to hint at an underlying theme: children aren’t responsible for the families and situations into which they’re born—we don’t get to choose our families or neighborhoods—but as we grow and become aware of what’s going on around us, we do get to make decisions that matter.
LMc: Are there any parallels in today’s world to the dichotomy present in post Civil War America?
AW: One particular parallel on my mind while writing Brotherhood was the plight of children growing up in families where they’re taught to hate and fear others. What if a child grows up in an Al Qaida training camp where he’s taught to hate Americans? What if children are born Tutsi, on a mission to kill Hutus? What if their parents are members of Westboro Baptist Church? Children aren’t at fault for being born into tough families. They’re stuck. As they grow, how will they come to terms with the animosities of their parents or guardians? I don’t have answers to my questions! But I wonder about them a lot.
LMc: How did you prepare yourself to represent the varied perspectives in this book?
AW: As the daughter of Southerners who moved north to Pennsylvania, I grew up with some of the conflicting perspectives in the book. Winners get to write a nation’s history, so at school I’d learn how great Lincoln was, and at home I’d learn never to mention the name Lincoln in polite company. Years later, when my husband took a job in Richmond, VA, capital of the Confederacy, I began to ask around, inviting opinions about the war, and people gave me earfuls! I tried to make the characters in Brotherhood reflect Southern sensibilities as honestly as I could. In addition to chatting with people, I spent time in all of Richmond’s museums (there are many), and two in particular—the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia; and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar—helped me begin to appreciate the African-American perspective. I think I still have a lot to learn there.
LMc: How did you make sure that you did not bring a present day sensibility to this story?
AW: Well, I doubt we can ever fully disentangle our perceptions from our twenty-first century sensibilities, but I’ll just say that in the course of researching the book, I read a number of newspapers and books written during the 1800s, and those helped me absorb the language and orientation of the times. I completed the initial draft in first-person from the protagonist’s point of view, and later changed the manuscript to third-person. But the first-person sensibility remained, and it was one deeply rooted in 1867 Virginia.
LMc: How did you keep the story from becoming a lecture on being politically correct?
AW: My characters often made me cringe, but I tried to put words in their mouths that were true to them as people. I decided that I’d leave it to readers to discuss the rights and wrongs of their actions. One of the most politically incorrect aspects of Brotherhood is the sympathetic portrayal of Shadrach, a young member of the KKK. What I did was to begin the story with Shad already inside the Klan, with the Klan as his family and racial bigotry as a given, and from that starting point, I allowed him to develop. I brought him to a place where he came to question his circumstances. Approaching the story with this “insider” orientation is probably the factor that kept it from turning into some sort of lecture.
LMc: Do you think people are born accepting the differences in others, or can they learn it?
AW: I think our brains are programmed to help us perceive danger and survive in a hostile environment, and our initial, subconscious reaction to “difference” is fear. We’re born xenophobic, and our primal instincts are tribal. But we’re fortunate that our brains have also evolved in such a way that we’re capable of acceptance and the ability to embrace diversity. We learn to accept differences when we’re exposed to people, ideas, languages, cultures and expressions that are not our own. And when we’re exposed, the conscious brain overrides the subconscious, and we learn that these differences don’t endanger us, but instead, enrich us as human beings.
LMc: Did you feel grumpy while writing this? If so, how did you keep your mood up?
AW: The story sure is sad at times, isn’t it?! I kept writing because I hadn’t found much fiction set during Reconstruction from a Southern viewpoint, so I felt there was a place in the world for this story. Also, I love my Rachel character, the formerly enslaved girl who now runs a school for African-American children. She gives me hope, and eventually, although Shad’s feelings are dampened by his circumstances, she gives him hope, too.
LMc: Thanks, Anne. Brotherhood is a terrific book about a little understood but incredibly important period in America’s history. I highly recommend it.