American Civil War, Researching Historical Fiction, Writing/Rewriting

A Portrait of Rural Life after the Civil War


In Jeffrey Lent’s new novel “A Slant of Light,” Union soldier Malcolm Hopeton comes home to his farm in western New York to discover that his wife has run off with his hired hand. What he does in a fit of rage propels him to flee — and sets in motion a somewhat unconventional narrative.

The book didn’t go where I expected it to (no modern-style courtroom drama), and it didn’t end where I expected it to either. Lent often writes in incomplete sentences, in fragments and impressions, and the dialogue was sometimes a mix of old-fashioned formal and more modern (to my ear at least).

But somehow it all worked. When I got to the end, I realized the book was really three interlocking stories of men and women struggling to understand and be understood by each other — to reach beyond the conventions of the times, which had very proscribed roles for women and men despite the close quarters in which they often lived and worked.

The book is also a loving, detailed portrait of farm life in the late 1800s. I went to a local bookstore to hear Lent read from and discuss the book, and his own story is fascinating. He grew up in Vermont and New York, where his father farmed with horse-drawn equipment well past the time everyone else had switched to gas-powered machinery.

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