Based on internal evidence, it can be deduced that the historical period captured by THE COLONEL’S CLAY spans (approximately) the 1880s through the 1930s. By filtering much of the action through the experiences of the protagonist, who is 15 when the novel opens, author Van Hawkins effectively brings to life the culture of steamboat travel and trade in this era, among towns and cities situated on rivers such as the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Illinois. Through Jesse’s initially fresh, unjaded perspective, and also through stories told to him by the Colonel and others, the author painstakingly recreates a lost world, just before it began to vanish as railroads replaced steamers as the favored mode of transport. Thus, Jesse experiences, from the inside, the work of stevedores hauling backbreaking cargo, crate by crate, up gangplanks; the life led by cabin boys and chefs’ assistants as they worked to accommodate passengers in the largely gender-segregated spaces of the steamers; and the practices of “slickers” and “sharpers” running “brace games” to take advantage of unskilled, overeager, or inebriated gamblers on board. In the lingo that Jesse eventually learns, “cappers” help slickers rig games; meanwhile, bribed bartenders hold on to manipulated decks of cards called “reader decks,” and hand them out them when a “kicker,” or a loser who complains, requests that a new deck be used. The Colonel takes Jesse under his wing as his capper; but in teaching him the tricks of the trade, he also teaches Jesse life lessons and the finer points of etiquette. He even assigns him extensive readings in history and literature.
The Colonel is a memorably vivid character, in part because of the paradox he presents: his level of education, scrupulous moral code, and general cultural refinement sit uneasily next to his occupation as a professional cheater. Less clear, though, is exactly what causes Jesse to push aside, in the second half of the book, all that the Colonel has taught him—excepting the skills related to achieving personal enrichment through skullduggery. Over the course of his pursuit of Missy Tolliver, Jesse’s values and priorities shift, or, rather, erode. Falling under the influence of Missy’s cruelly corrupt father, a kind of anti-Colonel, Jesse stops treating the plantation as a means to court Missy, and instead comes to embrace gaining control over its exploitative operations as an end in itself. But why do Broadus Tolliver’s unchecked greed, rude ways, and racist attitudes toward Blacks ultimately influence Jesse’s choices and conduct more than the Colonel’s teachings and, in particular, his anti-racist views? How could Jesse have lived with himself while propping up, and eventually taking over, the Tolliver operation, given his recognition that he has served as “an enforcer in this criminal enterprise,” and that the corruption he thereby helped foster has allowed “you [Missy] to live in great luxury without lifting a finger” and “provided a thousand other things that are considered by wealthy southerners to be their birthright”? What is it about Jesse’s family background, propensities, or attitudes that caused him to drift so far from the model set by the Colonel? The first page of the novel hints at Jesse’s difficult home life; apart from that brief passage, however, the book as a whole, foregrounding historical detail over character psychology, makes it difficult to answer these questions.
There are also a couple of anachronistic references worth mentioning. In one instance, the older Jesse’s lawyer uses a rolodex, but this device was not invented until 1956. Shortly thereafter, Jesse perceives a private detective as having a “marathoner’s build,” even though this descriptor belongs to contemporary parlance and not to the world of 1930s Arkansas.
In THE COLONEL’S CLAY, a readable and richly detailed historical novel, characterization sometimes takes a back seat to scene-setting, with lore about steamboats, the tricks played by professional gamblers, and early-twentieth-century plantation life coming at the expense of a fuller portrait of the protagonist.
~David Herman for IndieReader