Stephen Wright

"The Amalgamation Polka"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAR 22, 2006)

"The bearded ladies were dancing in the mud."

The Amalgamationa Polka by Stephen Wright

With an opening sentence like this, the reader knows immediately that this Civil War novel is no Gone With the Wind.  Dense, suggestive, and impressionistic in style, it focuses on the Fish family—Thatcher Fish, a traveling preacher and abolitionist from Delphi, New York;  his wife Roxana, formerly of Redemption Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, who travels the lecture circuit with him; and their son Liberty, upon whom most of the action revolves.  Dividing the novel into three parts, the author first recreates the atmosphere of pre-Civil War New York, with Liberty, as a child, absorbing his parents' values, sometimes being ostracized by other children, and, in his loneliness, finding comfort with Euclid, an escaped slave who lives with the family in the root cellar. 

Wright is particularly effective in revealing Liberty's life from the point of view of a child, someone whose childhood house was an "enchanted domain," filled with hidden passageways, sliding panels, floor traps, and peepholes, along with people who emerged from the walls, turned up unexpectedly at breakfast, and climbed out of coffins when carriages arrived at the back door, only to disappear on "the train Mother told me about, that runs under the ground."

Moving back and forth through Liberty's childhood and that of his mother, the story is filled with extravagant descriptions and quirky characters—Uncle Potter, who is always seeking excitement and battles; Ma'am L'Orange, Liberty's mad teacher, who has not a dram of French blood in her veins; Arthur Fife, aged 146, a former pirate who lives in a hole in the ground;  Captain Erastus Whelkington of the canal boat Croesus, who rules with an iron fist; and Stumpy, the hoggee, a child who keeps the mules moving along the towpath of the canal.  His mother Roxana's life at Redemption Hall and her permanent break with her autocratic and abusive father, when she is still in her teens, shows the contrasts between her life on the plantation and that of Liberty.

Liberty's enlistment in the Union army at the outbreak of the Civil War, when he is sixteen, begins the second part of the book, filled with the carnage of battle, the devastating accidents of fate, and the horrors of hand-to-hand combat.  Following "Uncle Billy" Sherman, Liberty joins Major Pickles, who travels with his own casket (filled with whiskey).  Abuses by the Union army eventually inspire Liberty to set out on his own.  "What choice did he have," he thinks, "but to follow the trail of his mother's tears?"

His discovery of the devastated Redemption Hall and his crazed grandfather constitute the final section of this compelling novel, which achieves dramatic strength through the black humor, the pathos, and outrageous behavior of Asa Maury, Liberty's grandfather.  Long a practitioner of eugenics and "speculations," by which he attempts to change black skin to white through medicine, Maury has lost all touch with reality, and the cruelty he inflicts upon his slaves goes beyond anything one may ever have read in previous Civil War novels. 

The energy of author Stephen Wright never flags.   A never-ending parade of oddball characters engages in wild episodes leading up to the Civil War and its aftermath, but Wright never lets the humor overshadow his serious themes and his message about the emancipation and the people who either participated in it or fought against it.  His descriptions are brilliant and memorable, and his eye for the telling detail makes the action come alive.  Unusual scenes filled with local color flesh out the narrative and give verisimilitude to the action, and Liberty's emotional reactions to the physical details around him enhance the mood and intensity of each scene.  When he takes a canal boat ride with his father, for example, the reader is given descriptions of the boat itself, the meals aboard, the passengers, the crew, the lock tender and his daughter, etc.  When Liberty goes with Uncle Potter to New York City and experiences both laughing gas and sex for the first time (a juxtaposition which adds to the humor), the light-hearted mood suddenly jolts to a stop.  The next five words reveal that Fort Sumter has been attacked.

Though the conclusion is a bit didactic, the moralizing occurs within the context of some outrageous scenes, which soften the lesson and make it more palatable.  Ultimately upbeat, the novel breaks new ground in historical fiction.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 19 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Amalgamation Polka at Random House



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About the Author:

Stephen WrightStephen Wright was educated at the U.S. Army Intelligence School and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Besides his novels, his work has also appeared in Esquire, Ontario Review, Antioch Review, and the anthology Avant-Pop. Awards and grants include the Maxwell Perkins Prize, the Hodder Fellowship, a Whiting Writers Award, a Guggenheim, and a Lannan Literary Award.

He has taught at Princeton University, Brown University, Goucher College and, most recently, The New School.

He lives in New York City.

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