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on May 14, 2014 :
Set in the early 1800s, Bud Fussell’s Scoundrel retells the Biblical story of Jacob, his brother, and his sons, transposing it to the American frontier. There’s a satisfying sense of discovery as each new twist in the plot echoes stories of old. Meanwhile the recent history of American slavery invites a change of focus as the story’s told. This Jacob is every bit the schemer and scoundrel of the Biblical tale, multiply married (I love the twist that makes this possible on the frontier), successful in the acquisition of land, slaves, and animals, a (very) early adopter and reader of books on genetic engineering, and a clever manipulator of political chance.
Set against a background of slavery, the Homestead Act, and Napoleonic land-grabs, this novel involves the reader quickly in everyday life and its problems. Strong clear scenes reveal the structures and morals of the time, and occasional historical uncertainty is easily forgiven. The writing’s detailed and slow, as befits so long a life. But the characters are fascinating, with their relationship to Biblical archetypes beautifully imagined. I love the final revelations of Jacob’s will—so hard to explain in the original text. And I’m glad I read this novel; I enjoyed the chance to see Biblically familiar events through such very different eyes.
Disclosure: I bought a copy when it was free.
(reviewed 9 months after purchase)