Your main character in Suite Harmonic is an Irish immigrant. As a writer raised in the segregationist South and interested in racial history, I wonder if the fact your protagonist had experienced his own form of subjugation in his native country affected the way you approached the issue of race in a book about a war fought largely over slavery.
—Paulette Bates Alden, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Since my original source material for Suite Harmonic, John Given’s Civil War letters, had a couple of oblique race references, I was attuned to this question in an unusual way right from the start, although I should back up just a bit. Years ago, I had a history professor who insisted that differing sectional notions of nationhood were more fundamental to the Civil War than slavery. It’s an interesting argument, but of course one that has to recognize slavery had become part of the South’s sense of itself as an organized society. The nation the South wanted the United States to be was a nation with slaves, which was the burning fact that commandeered the political stage in the decades before the war started.
There was also the fact that a lot of the enlisted or drafted men in the Union army—and I suspect in the Confederate army, though I haven’t looked at any of those rosters—were immigrants, and many of them Irish like John Given. The Irish had come to America largely because of strictures under British rule and the resulting economic hardship, which was at its most extreme during the Potato Famine. They were very aware of the real inequities at home. It might seem logical to assume these Irish immigrants would identify with the slaves because of their lack of freedom, or at least easy to project that outlook onto them from the vantage of the twenty-first century. But of course, it wasn’t that simple. It’s a strangeness of human nature that downtrodden groups often identify more with oppressors than with other oppressed groups. They might like the sense of superiority that comes from being part of a race that has a dominant position. Or they may fear their economic place will be usurped if oppressed groups gain freedom or power that puts them in direct competition for jobs. The Irish immigrants to America certainly considered such threats.
But to return to John Given, I really could only guess at his attitude toward race, though the references I mentioned suggested to me that his sense of black people came from the fact that he knew virtually nothing about them except what he picked up from the caricatures of the day. Yet he was a very well educated man, and I assumed he would think about the issue of race and try to understand what it meant in America and what, finally, it meant to him. I made that part of the book and, in one case, as I mention in the author’s note, actually created a character to help me explore his changing attitudes.
I’ll add this. I knew that, as much as the letters drew me in, there was no way I was going to write a book with a racist as a sympathetic main character. If the letters had had a smoking gun of racism, I would have altered John’s personal history to ignore that, or even abandoned the whole project of writing about him. However, there was no smoking gun and, though John may have initially thought about race in the stereotypes of the day, I made one find that was reassuring. Though the letters also include a couple of unflattering remarks about Abraham Lincoln, one of the things that John’s daughter kept—and I’m sure it was his—was a small picture of Lincoln, the man who evolved on the race issue himself. In the end, I felt I knew where John stood.
Paulette blogs on writing and life at paulettealden.com.