Book Review: Slant of Light by Steve Wiegenstein

Blank Slate Press, a young, indie publishing company in St. Louis, Missouri, is putting out a new historical fiction book this spring called Slant of Light. I was lucky enough to get an ARC of the book, because I’m also lucky enough to be able to call the founder of Blank Slate Press “Mom”. So I’m going to put out my true and honest thoughts on this book in an unbiased (err, I’ll try!), critical, and exciting manner. I think some people call that a “book review” but I’m not really up with the lingo these days.

The book opens in 1857 with young writer and lecturer James Turner setting out to establish a Utopian colony, Daybreak, on a small piece of land in the Ozarks, in Missouri. His wife, Charlotte, joins him soon after, along with a former politician and Abolitionist named Adam Cabot who just about had the idealism scared stark out of him in a run-in with some bandits in Kansas. The colony struggles but blossoms, as more and more of Turner’s followers join them to be Utopian farmers in the Missouri backwaters. As they learn to adapt to their new lives, each of them must fight to maintain their principles in the face of violence, sickness, and personal temptations. As the Civil War breaks out and comes slowly to their doorstep, they each push themselves beyond their own limits and begin to truly learn what “Utopia” means.

Slant of Light is a contemplative book. That’s not to say that it lacks action, momentum, or is some sort of academic or meditative book. The power in it is subtle, though, and comes not from action-packed, thrilling moments or from grand ideas and postulations. It comes from quiet moments of strength from each character and from the ideals they cling to desperately, though never fully articulate. At times, too, it is beautiful. There are passages that sing of light and color, words that resound and echo and vibrate with life. It is quiet and lovely, like the sun breaking over the horizon in the morning.

The true beauty of the book is not the “fiction” side but the “historical” side. Wiegenstein has captured the essence of life on the Missouri frontier, from the narrative language and the dialogue to the little details of agricultural life that make it seem less like a book than like a painting, a watercolor entitled: Daybreak Utopian Colony, 1859. His writing is calm and eloquent, but with a seeming inner strength that lends itself to his characters’ own personal reflections. The constant conflicts between urban and rural, manual labor and machine labor, bandit and sheriff, woman and man, are each situated precisely in their time and location so as to thoroughly illustrate for the reader exactly how different our modern world is from theirs. The side characters – Harp Webb, Sam Hildebrand, Sheriff Willingham, and Charley Pettibone – are all beautifully and simply drawn, and they are key components in bringing such a wild and different time period to life.

The undertow of youthful idealism, betrayed innocence, and ever-hardening resolve is what carries the book beyond “historical” and into “fiction”. At the opening of the book, the three main characters are almost naive in their beliefs, and by the end, each of them have been shocked into a new state of being. Cabot’s ambition is quickly betrayed, and he spends the rest of the book reconciling a near-death experience with his devotion to his principles. Charlotte is perhaps the most realistic, and so she has the firmest grip on reality. In turn, she is the most steadfast in her beliefs. In a way, Charlotte’s idealism never leaves her – she simply learns to reconcile her dreams for herself and for the world with the hardships of life. Turner, ironically, as the founder of Daybreak is also the hardest to fall. But even he picks himself back up, and it is his struggle to redeem himself that gives new meaning to his original Utopian principles.

The book’s biggest weakness is its failure to ramp up the action or create any real feeling of suspense, fear, or anticipation when the moments of pressure do come – and they do. Each one of the characters is threatened, quite legitimately, at least once during the book, and there are times so dire that the entire colony could be torn apart. But those moments lack suspense. Even as shots are being fired, there is still a sense of contemplation rather than urgency. This is not a thrilling book, and if that’s what you’re looking for, this book may not be for you.

And finally, though the characters morph, struggle, and adapt, there is no grand change or paradigm shift. We miss a little bit of the soul-wrenching, deep anguish that come when people face critical decisions and lives are on the line. There is no existential or spiritual crisis; ultimately, though each character matures and grows, they remain largely the same. That crisis, the process of breaking from tradition and re-emerging as a different person, is largely missing–or at least invisible–in each character’s critical growth.

Ultimately, however (and yes, as her daughter I am contractually obligated to say this, though it does not mean I do not believe it) these shortcomings did not detract from my enjoyment of it, and it comes highly recommended. It is a return to the quiet power of writing, the power to simply illustrate and to bring to life, and the power to contemplate and reveal human nature. Slant of Light reminds us of what Utopia really is – a “no place” in Greek, an impossible place – a place where we simply try to be the best that we can be.

The link to the Amazon purchase page is here.