Varying perspectives disclose what life was like

March 01, 1992|By Patrick T. Reardon | Patrick T. Reardon,Chicago Tribune

HOW GRAND A FLAME: A CHRONICLE OF A PLANTATION FAMILY 1813-1947.

Clyde Bresee.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

219 pages. $19.95.

Peter Brown, a former slave who lived and worked his entire life for the same white family of planters on James Island across from Charleston, S.C., was an old man in his 80s when Clyde Bresee knew him.

Now Mr. Bresee is in his 70s, and he is telling Brown's story and the story of three generations of Lawtons, who lived off the fruit of the land and the sweat of their slaves and then, after the Civil War, were forced to live by their wits and the sweat of their brows.

This is a fascinating and unusual book, fully rounded, part memoir, part history. It is based on interviews Mr. Bresee conducted and on a diary kept by one of the Lawton women, Cecilia.

Even more, it is based on conversations Peter Brown and Bresee's father shared in the final years of Brown's life. These were conversations that the father, a Yankee from Pennsylvania who worked on the plantation, repeated many times at the family dinner table, and that Mr. Bresee still recalls.

This is an odd but interesting sort of history, rooted as it is in the different levels and types of reminiscences of Bresee, his father, Brown and Cecilia.

In the 1920s, when Mr. Bresee knew him, Brown was living in a rent-free house on the plantation, a gift for saving the life of Wallace Lawton, once his master, later his boss and, in some way, his friend. Their lives had been inextricably intertwined, all because of a passing whim of Wallace's parents in 1850, when Brown was 10. He was brought from the fields to work in the house -- "It would lift Peter from a lifetime of dawn-to-dusk field labor to one of dignity and responsibility and even education."

The relationship of Brown and Lawton wasn't smooth. The latter was a hothead who, at one point, faced trial on charges of murdering a business associate. He beat Brown at least three times. And Brown left him at least once.

But in some way they relied on each other and cared for each other. Even to the end.

"A few weeks before Wallace died, Peter called upon him," Mr. Bresee writes. "He found Wallace sitting in a big chair with a lapboard in front of him. . . . Peter handed Wallace a pecan, but told my father, 'He couldn't crack it in his fist as he used to, so I broke the shell for him. . . . We had a good talk. . . . I don't remember what I said but I told him a lot of things that was on my mind, and, when I stood to leave, he said, "Peter, you ought to have been a preacher.' "

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