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“Come with us, Johnny, and go with us up North, and we will set you free,” said the soldier, his blue uniform cap tilted over his right eye, his knapsack on his back, his long musket over his shoulder. The ten-year-old, astride the mule Nell, thought it wondrous that he knew his name. For almost two years he’d marveled at the troops marching along the road skirting the Clover Bottom plantation near Nashville, Tennessee, where he lived. And now they wanted him to join them. Without a thought, he slipped off Nell’s back. It was done, the year, 1862.

Such changed the direction of John McCline’s life, narrator of Slavery in the Clover Bottoms (Knoxville, University Press, 1998). The Thirteenth Michigan Volunteers became his new home for the rest of the Civil War. A quick learner, affable, willingness, friend with suffering: such childhood traits he continued developing during years of serving others in the white world until his death in 1948.

One of his employers requested him to write his story, given the keen memory of his past. McCline set to work, but for whatever reason, only took it through the war’s end; a six-page addendum touched upon his remaining years. Unfortunately, his feelings or observations of the conflicted history swirling around him are not referenced.

However, for Civil War buffs this narrative provides rich information about Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas and the conclusion of the war. From still another perspective, we evidence the life of a simple honest man, John McCline, among the lowly ones that Jesus so loved.

Forgiveness is the critical life-lesson for conversion of heart that frees spirits and enhances identities and deepens relationships. Such occurs following the self-stripping of deep-seated resentments and grudges—not without considerable psychic pain. Studying, in print, how others take on this task prods my lackluster courage to do similarly.

In the historical novel, Under the Tulip Tree (2020), written by Michelle Shocklee, we observe this radical change in the 101 year-old former slave and her new friend, a writer in Nashville, Tennessee. The year was 1936. Included in FDR’s Federal Works Progress Administration was a program that hired unemployed writers to record slave narratives from former Confederate states before their demise—to preserve their oral tradition lest it be lost.

When six-year old Frankie was living with her enslaved family on the plantation outside of Nashville, its irate Mistress grabbed the poker from the fireplace and maimed her left hand for life: its severity was “…Like a big ol’ log on a cook fire, it fed my bitterness and hatred…I liked it….” she said later of the psychic wound that bedeviled her attitudes and behaviors for decades.

Her interviewer Rena, whose affluent life style was altered by the depression, found herself woefully ignorant of her racial prejudice and ill equipped to live in the real world. As their shared narrative developed, a shocking fact emerged that added to their grievances. Forgiveness hung in the balance.

A riveting story, to be sure, but stale images, some scrap-heap words, shallow dialogue, and too much plot-busyness not only lost my attention, but obscured the process of forgiveness of the former slave and writer. Much of the writer’s family of origin and the romance could have been omitted.

What remain valid, though, are scenes of Nashville during and after the Civil War and the writer’s discounting the actual project’s slave stories, as largely anemic. But the forgiveness does work.

Available on Amazon

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