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A Shout in the Ruins


A Shout in the Ruins

“By 1870, not even four full years after the clerk of Chesterfield County, Virginia, officially recorded Emily Reid Levallois’ death, rumors of her survival and true whereabouts abounded,” reads the first line of A SHOUT IN THE RUINS, Kevin Powers’ new novel. It is an intriguing line, and those that follow --- unlikely environs for the young woman to be sighted, odd jobs someone with her status wouldn’t be doing --- compel the reader forward into the mystery of what happened to her. But whether Emily did actually die in the fire of her plantation home outside Richmond, or she was working as a washerwoman in Baltimore, is perhaps less interesting than much of the winding narrative Powers weaves after the first line.

A SHOUT IN THE RUINS follows two seemingly unconnected storylines a century apart. The first is set amid the chaos of the Civil War and the subsequent end of slavery. By contrast, the other takes place in the 1950s and follows George Seldom, an elderly black man who has been displaced from his Virginia home to make way for a turnpike. In the twilight years of his life, he decides to revisit places he remembers from his childhood in an attempt to discover his true parentage. While George’s journey is interior and quiet, the other is an obstacle-laden road of danger and trapdoors, full of offshoots that, at the time, seem to have no connection to any character or part of the main story, but end up coming back around in the end.

"A SHOUT IN THE RUINS is a beautiful, strange and compelling book full of savagery and love, which begs the question: Is there a difference between those two things?"

The Civil War storyline begins to take shape on the eve of the war, when Emily is 14 and her father, Bob Reid, is a mule skinner with a respectable household. He owns two slaves: Aurelia, who takes care of Reid’s sickly wife and Emily, and her son Rawls, who lost his big toes to the hand of his former master. Reid gives Rawls a pass to be out of the property from dusk till dawn, and one night he meets Nurse, a fellow slave from a nearby plantation with whom he instantly falls in love. When Nurse stops coming to their meeting place, Rawls determines to find her even if it means he is classified as a runaway slave.

The Reids’ land abuts the plantation of Antony Levallois, a manipulative and ruthless man who, by this point, has grown tired of raping both his female and male slaves. He has decided he needs a wife so other plantation owners will take him seriously. Emily and her father run into Levallois one night as they are looking for Rawls, and he joins the hunt, partly because he sees an advantage in the situation for himself, and partly because the moment he saw Emily on her horse he resolved to make her his wife. By sunrise the next morning, Rawls, Aurelia and a horse are all the property of Levallois, and a plan to make Emily his wife has been set in motion.

At times, A SHOUT IN THE RUINS seems off course, especially when jumping back and forth between past and present in either of the storylines, but Powers does an excellent job of tying nearly everything back together. There is a decent amount of foreshadowing by the omniscient narrator, but it works, oddly enough, to humanize the characters and adds to the horrors of the time period, the ways in which the country reeled in the aftereffects of the war, and the savagery that isn’t as prominent in history. That said, Powers could have addressed slavery more potently; as it is, he uses it more as a prop, and it could have played a more important role. The prose is somewhat overwrought, and his descriptions are often muddled by words that don’t describe anything. There were a few seemingly important non-sequiturs that left me with lingering questions.

Though I don’t entirely connect the title to anything in the story, A SHOUT IN THE RUINS is a beautiful, strange and compelling book full of savagery and love, which begs the question: Is there a difference between those two things?

Reviewed by Sarah Jackman on May 25, 2018

A Shout in the Ruins
by Kevin Powers

  • Publication Date: May 7, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316556491
  • ISBN-13: 9780316556491