Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Howard Means's C.S.A. and Robert Harris's Fatherland bear some superficial similarities to each other. Both novels are alternate histories written by journalists who use a murder mystery to begin their exploration of these different societies. However, while Harris has very clearly done the research necessary to construct a realistic world in which Germany won World War II, Means fails to do the same with his world in which the Confederacy managed to defeat the Union.
The novel opens with a murder investigation which immediately provides the reader with an understanding of the religious and racial tenor of the times. After grabbing the reader's attention with this grisly investigation, Means proceeds to ignore it for nearly a quarter of the book, focusing instead on the White President Spencer Lee and his Black Vice-President Nathan Winston. Even as Means is portraying his C.S.A. in nearly utopic terms, he makes it clear that any person with less than 77% "pure blood" is marginalized by society while foreigners seeking citizenship must undergo a "Patriation" process which includes denouncing any beliefs which don't jibe with the majority's.
This disenfranchised group forms the catalyst for the novel. Going under the name of DRAGO, this unseen underclass made up of mixed-bloods and other outcasts use the unveiling of a national irrigation system to spark a protest against what they perceive as unfair practices.
When Means looks at the history of his world, which is often since his characters all seem to be painfully aware of their history, he reveals a world in which the historical characters do not seem to act in accordance with the men on whom Means bases the characters. Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and others simply would not have acted in the manner Means describes.
Means's politics also suffer from a lack of research. While the Confederate Constitution provided for a single six year term for the President (Article II, Section I, "The executive power shall be vested in a President of Confederate States of America. He and the Vice President shall hold their offices for the term of six years; but the President shall not be re-eligible."), Means's President Lee is serving the seventh year during his second term. The Confederate government also seems to have done away completely with the entire notion of State's Rights, giving the government in Richmond a more thorough hand in ruling than even the government in Washington currently has.
In Means world in which the Confederacy, Canada and Mexico make up the total of North America, White-Black relations are better than in our own world. Apparently, the slaves were not only freed shortly after the South annihilated the North, but they were given bi-equality with their former masters. The Confederate Vice-Presidency and House of Representatives turned over to them while the Whites retained the Presidency and the Senate.
Generally, Means handles relationships well, particularly the political relationships in Richmond between Winston and Lee and the various members of the House and Senate. Similarly, the relationship between Winston and his family is good, although his son and daughter's relationship does seem a bit strange. Where Means does get in trouble is the relationship between Winston's daughter Lucy and Lee's son, Jason. From the moment Means introduces these characters, the friendship seems on a pre-destined course to run afoul of the Confederacy's miscegenation laws. Furthermore, the disappearance of Winston's son John Henry is handled poorly, positing a world in which the frequently photographed son of the Vice-President can disappear without causing question or without anyone recognizing him.
While Means's novel begins with an interesting premise, it fails on many levels to suspend the reader's disbelief. Means's writing style is clear and easy to read which is fortunate since it aids to the pace of the novel. Unfortunately, a clear writing style is not enough to recommend a novel and C.S.A. doesn't have much else going for it.
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