Tale of 1860s' strife is mired in subplots

July 20, 1994|By Judith Wynn | Judith Wynn,Special to The Sun

The Vietnam War era wasn't the United States' first brush with anti-draft sentiment. During the Civil War, state quotas forced thousands of white northerners into the Union Army every month. Meanwhile, the Emancipation Proclamation freed black men to fight too. The establishment of induction centers in New York City, in the spring of 1863, touched off a series of bloody confrontations between the public and the police. White citizens -- mainly poor and notably Irish -- took their rage out upon black citizens. Before the dust settled, the rioters had pillaged many homes and businesses, both black and white, and burned Manhattan's "Colored Orphanage" to the ground.

In "The Banished Children of Eve," Time Warner speech writer Peter Quinn takes on a turbulent historical event that is long overdue for attention. Unfortunately, he jumps around among too many points of view, journeys too far back into too many characters' pasts, and fails to sustain the strong, forward drive that his long novel needs to hold all of its characters and episodes together. Grand historical upheavals impose their own inexorable rhythms upon narrative, and this can be a blessing to storytellers as events sweep all the loose plot threads toward the violent, foregone conclusion. "Banished Children" delays the climax so long that the expected eruption turns anti-climactic.

The early chapters promise a ripping good yarn. The author deftly builds his novelistic superstructure amid the seething racism of Manhatten's dockside slums. Mr. Quinn has obviously done some solid historical research. He skillfully weaves in raffish details of 1860s New York -- rowdy saloons, swank brothels, a parrot trained to cry "Hang Abe Lincoln!" -- as management hires black labor to break white strikes in the shipping industry.

We first meet several intriguing pairs of young men and their untrustworthy older mentors: an Irish drifter and his street-hustling pal; a minstrel-show singer and the broken-down vaudevillian who taught everything he knows about blackface routine; an Irish priest and his senile bishop. The irony of white entertainers impersonating black singers in order to entertain racist audiences who are being forced to fight a war to free black people lends a grim piquancy to the story.

Unfortunately, these thematic devices fall apart as Mr. Quinn loads on more and more subplots: a gambling-addicted businessman, a mulatto actress, an Irish servant girl, and songwriter Stephen Foster in the final, gin-besotted months of his short, unhappy life. Everyone has memories. There are flashbacks within flashbacks. The mulatto actress takes us several generations back into what could and should have been a separate novel about free blacks in New York. The author has put himself in a bind; the more interesting a subplot is, the more it bogs down the novel as a whole. "The Banished Children of Eve" captures the brutality of the Civil War home front, but it could have used a lot more streamlining to give life to this disturbing chapter in U.S. history.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Banished Children of Eve: A Novel of Civil War New York"

Author: Peter Quinn

Publisher: Viking

Length, price: 608 pages, $23

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