The Meaning of DarkHorse — and Democracy
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
- Winston Churchill
Since I’ve been asked, and since The Lies That Bind is the first novel in my planned DarkHorse Trilogy, I’ll explain the two basic interpretations of the name, DarkHorse, the literal meaning and the mythological meaning.
First is the name of the main character: Durksen Hurst. Durksen is Hurst’s given name, but he goes by Durk. Now, Durk was raised by the Chickasaws from the age of ten, but due to their limited familiarity with English and the similarity to the words Durk Hurst, the Chickasaws called him “Dark Horse,” a name that stuck.
Second is the name of the plantation, DarkHorse (an egalitarian partnership between a visionary charlatan and a group of slaves). Durk’s need to prove himself to the town of Turkle is expressed by naming the plantation after his Native name, DarkHorse. Why spell it as one word? Because that’s how he writes it on the deed. While Durk is a reader, he is self-educated, and his written skills are limited. In rural antebellum Mississippi, few were highly literate. In The Lies That Bind, only the Devereau French and Antoinette DuVallier characters are well-read in the classics.
The Real Significance
Then there is the real meaning behind the name DarkHorse. These thirteen men, near starvation and with little to lose, try to carve out their own farming enterprise from the surrounding Chickasaw swampforest (with Durk having swindled the rights to a patch of land from the local tribe). And wasn’t—or isn’t—that America (including robbing the Native Americans)? Didn’t our ancestors, and don’t immigrants today, find themselves on these shores looking to build new lives, and a new civilization, unbound by the strictures of the past — bound only by rules they conceive themselves, rules far different from those they left behind in the Old World? And it doesn’t matter whether they came across the ocean in steerage or first class, in the hull of slave ships, or by modern-day airplane, they all had common aspirations.
The Old World had a rigid class system: kings, aristocracies, all manner of tribal tyrannies. Except for Athens and a sprinkle of states, that’s the way the human race organized itself. In fact, that’s the way most of the world still is today. Even mercantile, parliamentary England had an aristocracy until the twentieth century. Unless you earned a title by pulling an arrow out of the king’s butt at the battle of Widdle-upon-Piddle five centuries ago, you had a rough road ahead.
And DarkHorse? A handshake between themselves and Durk was all the partners had to go on. Those men had to learn to trust and rely on each other. Their creation was a democracy of sorts, making up the rules as they went along, with everyone participating on his own terms, the decisions being made by consensus, through debate — or rather, under their tense circumstances, outright argument.
Of course, the society surrounding them was a slave society, about as rigid a structure as you can get. Run by the powerful French family, little Turkle, Mississippi, was slave vs. free, aristocrat vs. sodbuster. Impoverished whites clung to the belief they were better than slaves. House slaves believed they were better than field slaves. Field slaves believed they were better than house slaves. In the novel, former house servant Old Moses dismisses his partners with the term “field hands,” and he doesn’t mean that as a compliment; while his partners make fun of his house servant ways.
DarkHorse has no rigid structure. Its members are recognized by what they can accomplish, not by preconceived notions or birth status. Big Josh, with his deep knowledge running his former dissolute master’s plantation, with his wisdom, with his strength and his peacemaking skills, is actually the partnership’s unacknowledged leader.
Durk, the figurehead white man, is the front for DarkHorse out of necessity, and the townsfolk give him all the credit for its success. But Durk’s real talents are mostly fast-talking and, to a minor degree, building fires. And his fast-talking may sometimes prove more a drawback than a boon to the partnership, creating “fires” he hadn’t intended. (Such as when Durk signs manumission documents freeing his partners, whom he never owned, in essence invalidating those very papers!)
Naturally, the DarkHorse partners argue, even come to blows, trying to dig themselves out of their desperate situation and build some kind of security for themselves. But democracy is rough and tumble, and solutions come the hard way. To paraphrase Churchill, “Americans always do the right thing — as a last resort.” In spite of our repeated failures, through all kinds of hardships, we usually seem to find a way to do things a little bit better in the future. It may be trial and error at times, but at least we have mechanisms for change.
Meantime, in 1861, outside the partners’ insulated world, the country itself is coming to blows: the Civil War, a conflict necessary to break down the rigid structure of the slave system, in which 700,000 Americans would die. Democracy is not always pretty.
Try as they might to ignore what’s happening elsewhere, in the second book of the DarkHorse Trilogy, Honor Among Outcasts, the DarkHorse partners will find themselves engulfed in this not-so-fraternal American conflict. Woe to them.
Book Launch for The Lies That Bind, University of Missouri- St. Louis