Categories are a matter of convenience. It's human nature to put like things together, and if something doesn't quite fit -- pull out your hammer and make it. So if a novel is set in the past with a plot concerning actual events, it has to be a historical novel, doesn't it?
But what if the author alters the characters' ages and motives, adds a few completely fictionalized players for flavor and provides answers, without factual evidence, to a mystery that's more than a century old?
For first-time novelist Tom Franklin, whose book, Hell at the Breech, manages to do all of that, it doesn't matter. Read the book and leave the cataloging to the librarians and book fair organizers.
"I've been to book festivals where they've put me on a mystery panel," Franklin says by phone interview from Oxford, Miss., where he lives and teaches at the University of Mississippi. "I had no reason to be there -- no right to be there, but there I was. I would never want to write where I had any kind of restraints whatsoever."
At this week's Words and Music Festival, Franklin will join Frederick Barton, John Biguenet and Tim Gautreaux for a panel discussion themed "The Aesthetics of Literature." The discussion is titled "Violence in Fiction: A Sign of the Times or Simply the Oldest Running Story in Literature."
The setting of Franklin's novel setting is 1897 in a poor agricultural village of southwestern Alabama called Mitcham Beat, which is part of Clarke County. A local man, Arch Bedsole, the community's influential general store owner, is mysteriously murdered. As is true with many farming communities, his store serves as a social center. Bedsole, who provided whiskey and speeches to his cotton-farming neighbors, had thoughts of running for state office.
His friends and relatives, mostly downtrodden farmers, suspect his political aspirations led to Arch's demise. They believe the wealthier town folk of nearby Grove Hill and Coffeeville are responsible, and this is confirmed by a report from Tooch Bedsole, Arch's cousin. A vigilante gang, Hell-at-the-Breech, is formed to avenge Arch's death. That isn't their only purpose, as one member explains it: "We're gone take the law by the shoulders and shake it, boys, we're gone run this beat. Then we'll bypass them crooked bastards in the courthouse and in the capitol and set our own order." Class warfare has been declared.
News doesn't travel with speed or reliability out of Mitcham Beat. All that Billy Waite, the aging sheriff of Clarke County, hears is the fearful innuendo among the residents and the occasional whispering of a secret society. Waite is torn; he is sympathetic to the cotton farmer's plight of leveraged land and cheating mill owners, but he is intrinsically duty-bound to the badge. When a Mitcham resident, Joe Anderson, is found dead in a ditch, Waite saddles his horse and journeys across the county to begin his investigation.
What he finds is a close-lipped community being terrorized by its own citizens. Hell-at-the-Breech members, cloaked in hoods and anonymity, demand that every white Mitcham man sign an oath of allegiance in blood. Following the same fate of Joe Anderson is the price for refusing. However, membership does have its privileges, and one is that farm evictions will no longer be tolerated. It only becomes a matter of time, for both the reader and the people of Clarke County, for the fuse to be lit.
Franklin, winner of the 1999 Edgar Allan Poe Award for his short story collection, Poachers, didn't travel far to find his subject. He's native of southwestern Alabama, so he was familiar with the story -- enough so that he rewrote its history. The death of Arch Bedsole has never been solved, but Franklin reveals the killer within the first hundred pages. It is a wise course; without the uncertainty of the whodunit, the reader is able to focus on Franklin's beautifully rendered metaphors and his precise character portrayals. Still, it was not an easy decision.
"For a couple of years I tried to stick with the facts -- the few facts there are -- and that really stymied me," says Franklin. "Only when I decided to change things did it start to work."
Instead of feeling bound by history, Franklin employs it. He uses it not only for the setting and some of the action, but also demonstrates the shaping effect personal history has on individual lives. Tooch Bedsole, victimized as a child and resentful of it, is a guarded man who doesn't take kindly to threats. For the sheriff, it furnishes clarity: "Waite supposed a man's past was like an apple peel with him at the knife: you never did get cut loose from it, it just curled round and round."
Franklin has taken a buried footnote and transformed it into a compelling drama examining violence and class struggle. Sometimes history can be changed to make comprehension complete. "I wanted to make it beautiful and I wanted to understand it," he says. "There were and are parts of the Mitcham War that are unknown. I wanted to define my own version of it."
- "Only when I decided to change things did it start to work," author Tom Franklin says his first novel, Hell at the Breech.