Violent West Florida history comes to life in Blood

THE BLOOD OF HEAVEN, A NOVEL

By Kent Wascom

Grove Press, $25

Young Angel Woolsack begins his tale of the West Florida Rebellion from New Orleans in 1861, summoning up a sweeping vision. “I see everything, past and now, like targets over the nip of a bead. There goes my father; there goes my brother and the wars we fought; there go all the souls I’ve outlived.”

After that brief prologue, the action shifts north. As a young, blond-haired Angel and his father, Preacher-father, make their way down the the Mississippi River on a flatboat, the passengers and boatmen grow tired of their raw evangelizing and toss them overboard. They wind up in nightmarish settlement of people called Chitites, who live in holes in the ground, dug in to fend off the hostile Indians.

“This place was settled by no more worthless a pack of dirt-daubers than you will find in all this awful world. They were ten or so families, with names like Shoelick and Backscratch and Auger, and we were met at the door of one’s hole, which opened like a cellar, by bewildered and mistrustful faces.”

The Chitites are a singularly unattractive lot, whiskey-soaked, dirty and underfed. They are in need of the Word. Angel and Preacher father oblige them, and there in their midst, Angel spies a person of interest to his own pubertal soul: Emily.

“She had an eye that wandered: her left, a mud-colored marble rolling untethered in her skull. And she might have been ugly, my little starveling girl, but she was of age and I grew in her presence then, counting the ringworms in her neck and numbering them like pearls.”

The desire, then, was present. All that was needed was opportunity. Angel meets the Kempers, another preacher and family. Kemper’s son Samuel and Angel have an epic battle after which they grow as close as brothers. With Samuel standing lookout, Angel and Emily consummate their love. It becomes a regular routine.

When the girl conceives, Angel doesn’t know what to do with his mud-spattered madonna. When her mother discovers the pregnancy, tragedy follows in a violent fashion. Angel is set upon by the enraged Chitites, and he and Samuel escape to undertake an arduous journey through the wilderness to Cincinnati to find Samuel’s brother Rueben.

But Rueben’s gone, headed south to a new country called Feliciana. The two boys, now calling themselves brothers, head south. In Natchez, Miss., they find employment as petty thieves and robbers and are adopted by a kindly old prostitute. It’s here that Angel meets the love of his life, the 14-year-old redhaired prostitute Red Kate. Joining up with a con-man minister and his sideshow full of freaks, Angel and Samuel travel on down to the Spanish holdings in West Florida — that part of Louisiana now called the Florida Parishes and the far southern counties of Mississippi and Alabama.

While Angel is Wascom’s invention, the Kempers were real historic personages who were involved in the failed raid on the Spanish fort in Baton Rouge in 1804. West Florida had remained in Spanish hands even after the Louisiana Purchase and would stay with Spain until 1810, when the West Florida rebellion successfully established the West Florida Republic. That government lasted 74 days before being annexed to the United States and being divvied up between Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Wascom’s tale is dark and violent and full of blood (as the title suggests) and religious symbolism (also suggested by the title). He details some of the horrors of the indigo trade, one of Louisiana’s first cash crops, that was grown with slave labor in the Florida Parishes.

Most of this rolicking adventure is well-told, but the complicated motivations and intrigues of the West Florida plotters are sometimes a bit muddled. Even with a few flaws, this is an above-average tale of Louisiana written in a literary style reminiscent of the beginning chapters of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Wascom, a Louisiana native and LSU graduate, is only in his mid-20s. Expect more good novels to come from this talented writer.