Big Josh and Angry Isaac—Minus Stereotypes and the Chains of Slavery
The core of my historical novel, The Lies That Bind (TouchPoint Press, Nov. 2015), is the unique relationship between visionary charlatan Durksen (Durk) Hurst and a dozen helplessly stranded slaves who partner together to build their own egalitarian plantation, which they will call DarkHorse.
The DarkHorse plantation itself is mythological, carved out of the Chickasaw forest by this ungainly baker’s dozen. As a literary technique, dramatically and structurally, DarkHorse creates a dynamic triangle between the partnership’s main characters: Durk, plus Big Josh and Isaac, both of whom are still legally slaves, and thus at risk of being re-enslaved—or worse—alongside Durk, who would surely hang should their scheme be exposed.
This pervasive danger forces the ill-fitting partners to adapt to each other in order to make decisions and settle disputes—quickly. But the characters’ awkwardness—given the time and place, their different races, legal status, and outlook—creates a tension and a sense of irony, resulting in some of the book’s most hilarious and most touching scenes.
Interestingly, although my original concept and first draft invented Big Josh and Isaac from whole cloth, during subsequent research I discovered that historically there were slaves such as Big Josh who ran plantations for dissolute masters. (See previous blog.)
I am a lover and reader of the great Southern novelists, especially William Faulkner. It was during a read of his iconic Absalom, Absalom! that the idea for The Lies That Bind came to me. I wondered why give all the credit for the success of Sutpen’s Hundred plantation to Thomas Sutpen? The labor of his slaves built his empire. In fact, I’ve blogged about how slaves and women are so often stereotyped in Southern literature. In my novel, I attempt to correct these oversights by portraying the novel’s slaves, including Big Josh and Isaac, as real men, and to give them credit for their intelligence and labors. I do the same with the novel’s women.
Big Josh’s Talents and Smarts
The DarkHorse plantation cannot survive without Big Josh’s talents and smarts. Simple looking, a stutterer, Big Josh has already upended stereotypes when we meet him. We learn Big Josh had run the plantation “back home” for his drunken master, a man who insisted people call him “General,” despite his lack of a military background. Because of Big Josh’s knowledge and wisdom, this natural peacekeeper becomes the unspoken, but acknowledged, true leader of the DarkHorse partnership. Durk is merely acting as the figurehead “white master,” with no actual experience in farming or building other than as an itinerant laborer, whose vainglorious, but failed, past endeavors had always left him broke and alone.
Then there is angry Isaac, an escaped slave who had been badly treated and was living as a swamp rat in Chickasaw territory when he first latches onto the partnership. Isaac’s past mistreatment led him to distrust all people, especially white people. In the first encounter between Durk and his future partners, wary Isaac insists that the stranded slaves bury Durk in the swamp lest he turn them in for a reward. And it is only Big Josh’s intervention that forestalls that tragedy.
Dramatically, Isaac serves as a counterbalance to Durk Hurst. While slaves were reluctant to criticize whites, hostile Isaac has too much anger to ever hold back. He brings up issues and flaws in Durk and Durk’s outrageous schemes that get the discussion—or rather, the arguments—going. Seeing this, Durk’s other partners get brave enough to express their opinions, too. This makes DarkHorse’s internal conflicts lively, to say the least.
Again, my research showed there were many slaves who, like fictional Isaac, had escaped bondage to live in marginal areas, in swamps, forests, and mountainous lands. These were called maroons at the time. Understandable, considering the lash was a major management technique on many plantations.
Despite Isaac’s vehement initial hostility toward Durk, Durk comes to realize that he has much in common with Isaac, especially their mutual alienation toward society. But Durk also sees a vast difference between them: that a slave can’t “pack his goods in a handkerchief and leave his troubles behind like a white man.”
There are no rules, no defined roles, no model to guide these mismatched protagonists through their ordeal. Yet despite their natural antipathy toward one another, they must somehow learn to cohere to survive. As a result, each must evolve as human beings—or they are all doomed.
A life lesson for us all.