CLAYBOUGH BY KYLE PETERSEN
Confederado is an odd word, and it generally rolls tentatively off the tongue for most Southerners. As it turns out, it’s a real thing—a term given to Confederate veterans of the Civil War who, rather than begin life anew in their war-town homeland, resettled in Brazil under the urging of Emperor Dom Pedro II, who wanted to begin the lucrative cultivation of cotton in his country. Casey Claybough, a Virginian native who received his PhD in Literature here at the University of South Carolina and now teaches at Lynchburg College when not managing his 100-acre farm in Appotomax, ﬁrst heard the word from his wife’s grandfather, who told the story of a family ancestor who fought in the Civil War as part of Mosby’s Rangers and later resettled in Brazil, where his agricultural expertise was highly valued. On the basis of this tale, Claybough, already the author of numerous scholarly monographs and short stories, set out to craft his ﬁrst novel of historical ﬁction, a sprawling work which sees him stretching and twisting the archetype established by Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain onto another continent, with rich results. The story chronicles the journey of Alvis Stevens, who upon returning to his family’s homestead after the war becomes quickly embroiled in a violent encounter with a Union soldier, forcing him to ﬂee the country for Brazil. Fortunately, Alvis’ sweetheart from before the war, Lavinia, has also reportedly emigrated there with her own family as well, and the young vet jumps at the chance to pursue her. From there, Claybough keeps the narrative action-packed, intermixing memories from the Civil War with the present as Alvis encounters hurricanes, shipwrecks, anaconda battles, an entrance into Brazil’s own war with Paraguay, and dangerous duels for the hand of his beloved, who remains just out of reach for much of the novel. Clearly intent on keeping the reader enthralled, the author rarely lets a chapter or two go by without forcing the heartbeat to quicken, and in the process demonstrates a keen facility for writing epic adventures. However, there is more going on here than a ﬁerce and fast journey into South America—a scholar of Southern literature, Claybough clearly wants us to examine traditional notions of the Confederate veteran. While his protagonist is a paragon of virtue and insight throughout the novel (at times gratingly so), other Southerners come off in varying degrees less palatable, championing the glories of war and ignor-
ing the enormous costs it extolls. In introducing the Brazilian war with Paraguay in the latter half of the book, Claybough also subtly comments on the strategies used in the Civil War by aligning Alvis with the more Union-like Brazilian army. Mostly, though, the novel sticks with fairly traditional versions of the Confederate veteran (Claybough admits that it is primarily the migration which makes him “something more than one more clichéd Civil War protagonist”) and other stock characters, from the villainous bastard Emilio who is Alvis’ chief foil in his quest for Lavinia’s hand to the wizened, eccentric father ﬁgure Evandero whose land Alvis takes over and makes successful. More attention seems to have been paid to imbuing the text with a rich sense of history, and throughout Claybough peppers the narrative with real historical details and ﬁgures, from the introduction of North American crops by the Confederados to minor corrupt Brazilian ambassadors. As historical ﬁction it’s deﬁnitely admirable, but Claybough’s best moments here are when he focuses not on war or strife, but the storytelling tradition that binds together his Southern and Brazilian characters. While other narrative moments may seem straight off a page in Gone with the Wind, the ways in which Alvis bonds through storytelling, ﬁrst with Lavinia during their courtship, and then later with his Brazilian benefactors, demonstrates a nuanced understanding of how we understand one another and ourselves via a complex and meaningful oral tradition. That Claybough does so in such a gripping and thrilling historical ﬁction work only heightens his achievement here, as he has created an attenuated ﬁrst novel that achieves a careful balance of commercial appeal and cultural insight.