Prelude to Pulitzer: The Forge by T. S. Stribling

When I started reading The Store, I didn’t realize it was the sequel to T. S. Stribling’s previous novel, The Forge, and found that the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel worked well on its own, without having read The Forge, but I decided to go back and read the first novel, to see how it interacted with its sequel and whether or not Stribling had anything more or different to say. And the short version is that he did.

The Forge follows the Vaiden family in a much more general sense, instead of focusing primarily on Miltiades, the protagonist of The Store. And perhaps the most fascinating thing about it is that it seems to work just as well reading it after The Store as I could imagine it would work reading it before. There are hints of unresolved mysteries in The Store, such as the murder of Polycarp Vaiden, Miltiades’ brother, which, instead of staying mysteries within The Forge, are actually resolved, but the characters who discover the truth are either not present in The Store, or are minor characters, and the mysteries, since they were resolved in the first novel, are only mysteries to the various narrators. Additionally, The Forge focuses on a completely different era, looking at the years before, during, and immediately after the Civil War, when things were confused and falling apart and anything but neat and tidy. Allegiances and loyalties are tested and strained, and Stribling isn’t afraid to show the darknesses on both sides of the war.

What is interesting about reading The Forge second, however, is wondering how things are going to end up the way they do in the later book. Though Miltiades’ love of one woman but marriage to another are spoken of at length in The Store, it is a different matter altogether to see it happen in real time, and the storyline that really takes its time developing is Miltiades’ sister Marcia’s. Jerry Catlin is her son who comes to town early in The Store and becomes one of the primary characters, but for most of The Forge, Marcia is engaged to another man, and Jerry Catlin’s father is an abolitionist from Tennessee, making any sort of interaction with Marcia strained, especially during the war when her family’s property is raided by Union soldiers during the war, soldiers in the same company as Jerry Catlin Sr.

The interaction between the slaves and slave-owners is a huge part of the novel that are not present in The Store, although there is still a lot of cultural residual in how the African-American populations should be dealt with and treated and a lot of racism in The Store that is present in a different form before the Civil War. And like in The Store, Stribling presents those same problems from the perspective of African-American populations instead of focusing solely on the white reactions to events. While this is interesting throughout the novel, the varied reaction to the Union occupation of Florence and the surrounding plantations becomes especially complex. Jerry Catlin Sr. is a sympathetic character from the beginning, but his fellow soldiers raid and burn houses, leaving families destitute and homeless. Gracie, pregnant with Miltiades’ son, who plays a large role in The Store, runs away to the army, which is described as “the Lord’s Army,” come to free the slaves, by the African-Americans, but when she gets there, she finds the soldiers treat her as little better than a prostitute, and is forced to ally herself with one of the officers higher up to keep from being passed around the camp. She eventually has enough of this, and by the end of the novel tries to go back to the Vaidens, her previous owners.

Likewise, during the Reconstruction, the former plantation owners form a branch of the Ku Klux Klan, which was in its early stages, and use it to enforce order in the area, and try to use it to keep the African-Americans from voting for the governor, since all the white males who fought in the War are excluded from voting, and they believe their lifestyle and “Southern courtesy” is threatened. But in response, the Union general gives out flour and bacon to the African-Americans in exchange for their votes, but has no qualms admitting that he has no intention of providing for these people who he has convinced to move into the city after they vote him into office. He draws them off the farms and into the city with the promise of provision, but then leaves them homeless and hungry and destitute after using their votes to secure his political position. And while I could never be sympathetic with the KKK in the novel, the opposing political side showed a similar malice.

The other thing that seemed much more present in The Forge, which was only hinted at in The Store was the supernatural. While there is a character in The Store who believes he saw a ghost who gave him some crucial information, and though that information turns out to be correct, it almost feels like a throwaway. In The Forge, however, superstition and the supernatural seem to play a much larger role, and are given much more credit. An epileptic minister speaks clues and answers questions while in a postictal state that turn out to be true every time. Visions and dreams and premonitions are always shown to come true instead of being discredited, despite a few skeptical characters. But despite sounding ridiculous when I type it out, it manages to work within the novel. It never really drew me out of the narrative or made me wonder if Stribling had gone completely off the deep end. Although I may have David Mitchell’s new novel, The Bone Clocks, to blame for that, because despite being a fantastic novel, some of the main characters are functionally immortal psychics. And it works quite well in Mitchell’s novel as well, though it is much more prominent and obvious.

Ultimately, the Civil War was a dark, difficult, and confusing time for a lot of Americans. Stribling dedicates the novel to “That brave, gay group from whom these memoirs were taken,” and having a father who fought for the Union side, and a mother whose family were Confederates probably gave him a unique experience of family story and history, which appears to be reflected in a unique way in his novels, perhaps most especially in Jerry Catlin and Marcia Vaiden, who seem to illustrate his parents more biographically than fictionally. He described himself as a “doubter and a questioner” and this seems more than apparent in his works, providing a complex look at complex issues instead of writing characters who all fall into established tropes and stereotypes, and forcing the reader to doubt and question both sides of any disagreement, whether it be a minor business squabble or something as large as the Civil War. His insight into the attitudes and experiences of the South during and after the Civil War, from every direction, deserve better than to be forgotten on the bookshelves of old libraries.

Currently reading: Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller


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