by William Styron
"[T]here was thus available to me more time than I had ever had before to ponder the Bible and its exhortations, and to think over the complexities of the bloody mission that was set out before me." (The Confessions of Nat Turner, p. 48)
In August of 1831, Nat Turner, believing himself to be carrying out God's instructions, led a slave revolt intended to wipe out the white population of Southampton County, Virginia. Before he and his followers were defeated, they left approximately 60 while people dead, including many women and children, and wide-spread fear in the South of similar incidents recurring. This is his story.
The writing style in The Confessions of Nat Turner is very dense -- dense to the point of seeming tedious unless I consciously put aside my impatience for a faster-paced story line and let the narrative guide me through the complexity of Nat Turner's mind. It's not easy to get a handle on why a slave who had a comparatively easy existence would be the one to mastermind a bloody revolt in an effort to eradicate white people, rather than one who had suffered under the whip of a brutal master. The extended detail helps the reader to feel the simmering of years of confusion and hatred as opposed to focusing on the sensationalism of the outcome.
It also helps the reader to absorb the abundant ironies in the story. Nat receives preferential treatment from most of his masters his whole life, some can almost be described as kind, but he longs to see them dead. He becomes fanatically religious, committing much of the Bible to memory and preaching to other slaves in the community to help them find salvation. Then, just as slaveholders use the Bible to condone the institution, Nat uses Biblical quotes to drive his listeners to a murderous frenzy and justify the massacre to them and himself. He dreams of wiping out the white race, then when the time for his rebellion comes, he himself kills only one person -- a young woman who had always been kind to him. And in the end, the judge who sentences Nat to hang is the one person Nat had identified early in his plans as one who should be spared death from the hands of his followers.
I was not emotionally captivated by The Confessions of Nat Turner in the way that I have been by some other novels of slavery, but there was something about it that held my imagination, if not my undivided attention. The Vintage International edition that I read also included an afterword by the author in which he discussed the reaction of the black community to his book at the time of publication and opposition he faced as a white man writing a legendary black man's story. It put some of the questions I had into perspective and gave me an even higher appreciation for the book.
For the curious, you can read the real-life confession of Nat Turner here.
NOTICE: (Updated March 5, 2010)
Beginning December 19, 2009, Books 'N Border Collies will be posting but only intermittently while I pursue personal goals. I plan to share some reading I'm doing, but there will be no reviews. I will, however, be sharing my exploration of vegetarian cooking and the cookbooks and websites I use to educate myself. I hope you enjoy it!