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Allen Boyer: “A Shout in the Ruins”

“A Shout in the Ruins,” Kevin Powers’ second novel, is a grim and dispiriting story from Southern history.

Powers saw service as a machine-gunner in Iraq. Out of this experience came his first novel, “The Yellow Birds,” a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. The strongest parts of this novel rely on the strengths that Powers showed in that book: a gift for language, and the ability to write of the pain of war and its aftermath.
“A Shout in the Ruins” is set in Virginia, mostly in Chesterfield County, outside Richmond. Powers grew up here, and he has researched its nineteenth-century history – particularly the sprawling bloodstained precincts of Chimborazo Hill (a sprawling Confederate army hospital) and unruly Jackson Ward, a hometown to the free black population.
The book inhabits the Civil War period, with one long look forward to the 1950’s and a coda in March 1985. The main characters include a slave couple, Rawls and Nurse; Bob Reid, a crippled Confederate veteran with a muleskinner’s temper; Reid’s daughter Emily; and sleek, grasping Anthony Levallois, a planter and mephistophelean man of affairs. Out of these characters’ tangled encounters emerges George Seldom, a mixed-race child of the war, who lives long enough to see Jackson Ward demolished in 1956 to make way for the Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike.
Powers is a poet as well as a novelist. His language is poetic – but more than that, he can build a thought in clauses as skillfully as if he were writing a quatrain.
“Aurelia saw that the child’s eyes were cloudy with cataracts. The pupils a swirl of the lightest gray at the center of dark, gold-flecked irises. She was sure the child was blind, and at that moment she began to tell the girl in a voice, one that sounded very much like singing, that it would be a hard life, that tomorrow would be a hard day, as would the day after and the day after that. But as she cradled her she saw the girl’s strange eyes moving toward points of light: the lamp burning with a quiet hiss, lightning bugs flickering in the yard, and what stars that could be seen from Chesterfield County assembled in the heavens.”
Powers also writes with a poet’s brevity. Ironically, this limits this book; it should have been longer. Too much history seems pressed into the pages, and some of the details needed further research. Thousand-acre soybean plantings are a feature of the modern South, not the antebellum plantation landscape, and it is as unlikely that an outlaw would ride with a brace of LeMat revolvers as it would be for a Romany violinist to travel with a Stradivarius.
A memorable stand-along part belongs to Lottie Bride. Lottie enters the book as a diner waitress, marries too young, gets a post office job, and learns to paint landscapes. (“The gray granite riprap and green water of the Chesapeake,” Powers writes: “Here a black streak on canvas stood in the broad water’s stead, there a bright dotting of color on a gray rectangle looked like the small bands of beach along the bay in summer’s bright light.”) She finds a new husband – Billy Rivers, who owns a small-town store and bait shop, and has learned to handle the wounds he carried home from Vietnam.
Lottie and Billy have only two chapters of their own, but those chapters are this novel’s best. Lottie and Billy live in the necks of land that stretch into the Chesapeake Bay, where Southern fields and woodlands abut marsh and salt water. Their imagined lives are the more tangible, the more credible, for being closest to the author’s own. And it is their losses that hit the hardest.


Allen Boyer, Book Editor for HottyToddy.com, is a native of Oxford. He lives and writes on Staten Island. His book “Rocky Boyer’s War,” a WWII history drawing on his father’s diary, will be published this month by the Naval Institute Press.

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