All God’s Children: A Novel of the American West
Paperback (also available as an e-book), 978-1-60945-618-4, 400 pgs., $17.99
October 20, 2020
“This nation has no use for frail and fickle humans—it desires only tales of heroes and villains.”
Duncan Lammons, a young man fleeing a swiftly escalating scandal, leaves Kentucky for Texas in 1827, having heard a presentation by a land man who made the Mexican state sound like “Eden before the fall.” Duncan meets Noah Smithwick in New Orleans and they board the ship together, fetching up on Texas’s shore at Matagorda Bay. Duncan, disgusted to find slavery in his new Eden and disappointed with the rough character of the settlements and the settlers, decides to keep moving, unattached to place and family, believing “we could still have the Texas we’d left our homes to find. Even if we had to build it for ourselves.”
In 1827, Cecelia is fifteen years old the first time she runs from her master’s Virginia plantation; she doesn’t get far. The second time, she is seventeen and caught just over the Pennsylvania line. Cecelia is sold, and she runs, sold again and still she runs, from Virginia to Mississippi to New Orleans. A young Texian named Sam Fisk sees Cecelia, manacled and chained, being marched across the square to the next auction block. Cecelia thinks Sam “didn’t know the rules, or didn’t care about the rules, or was making new rules of his own.” Soon Sam and Cecelia are riding for Texas together.
All God’s Children: A Novel of the American West, Aaron Gwyn’s third novel, is about human beings, Americans in all their terrible and transcendent individuality, bravely insisting upon pursuing happiness, expanding the meaning of that term in the philosophical, eighteenth-century Enlightenment sense.
Duncan and Cecelia are richly, distinctively drawn. Duncan leaves Kentucky for Texas, seeking an elusive freedom to live as one pleased, thinking that “you could leave America where the planters and plant-managers had everything locked down and laid out”, not understanding that “while you might’ve thought you were living in America, all that time it was living in you.” Cecelia learns early that “other people [are] weak. Trusting them was weakness.” But just like in the desert, individuals don’t survive a frontier.
Chronological, parallel narratives, set in some of the most formative and transformative years of two young republics, eventually bring Duncan and Cecelia together, surrounded with the supporting cast they deserve. Gwyn provides complex backstories that inform his characters motivations and actions, though in the process he indulges in an unnecessarily lengthy exposition on the origins of Duncan’s compatriots in his ranging company. This is the only falter in the otherwise quick, smooth, steady pacing.
Gwyn possesses a distinctive voice that is, nevertheless, a recognizably Western rhythm. He doesn’t spare the reader Cecelia’s lashing, neither does he spare us the hard truths of frontier expansion. His language is equal parts sophisticated imagery (“There was always a weakness. Finding it was like finding a lever: you could move something heavier than yourself”), evocative simile (an infant “gave off love like a stove did heat”), and folksy (“I wasn’t born in the woods to be scared by an owl”).
Dialogue is enriched with a smart, wholly unexpected humor that you will learn to look forward to with bright anticipation. It’s a dry, subtle humor, and it will sneak up on you.
“You’re a peculiar white man,” [Cecelia] said. “Did anyone ever tell you?”
“They told me,” [Sam] said.
The gentle bickering between Duncan and Sam is a recurring feature. Sam sets to building a fire with a spindle and fireboard. Duncan is nonplussed. “What’re you doing?”
“Building this fire,” [Sam] said.
“You’re welcome to my tinderbox.”
“I’m all right.”
This is compensation for when he will wallop you with foreshadowing that fills you with dread. In the beginning of his army career, Duncan doesn’t give much thought to the defeated. “It would take more than a decade for such a thought to come knocking at my door, and when it did, it battered down door, house and all.”
Gwyn offers us an entertaining tale of misfits finding each other that is also an inspiring, hopeful exploration of an alternate vision of violence and masculinity.
Aaron Gwyn is the author of three novels. His fiction has appeared in his story collection, Dog on the Cross, finalist for the New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award; and numerous magazines and anthologies such as Esquire, McSweeney’s, Best of the West, and Every True Pleasure: LGBTQ Tales of North Carolina. He is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he teaches fiction writing and American literature.