Somerset by Leila Meacham

I was in the mood for a long historical epic novel.

“Somerset” had just come into our (small) local public library, and it fit the bill quite nicely! “Somerset” is a prequel to Meacham’s novel “Roses”, which is definitely going on to my TBR list next!

Although well over 600 pages, this novel was a quick read for me and I was able to complete it in less than a week (for me, that is quick!) (What is it with historical fiction lately? I just can’t seem to get enough of it!) This partly-Civil-war era novel was interesting for me and had just enough momentum to keep my interest throughout most of the book.

Silas Toliver is a second son in the South during the pre-Civil war years. As such, he has inherited nothing from his father’s plantation holdings, and, to put it mildly, Silas is ‘land-hungry’. He wants to run a plantation and build it up, and seems to have the talents and gifts, but no means, to do it. Right off the bat Meacham has created a character whose frustration impels him to take action, and his guilt and justification of that pursuit haunt him for much of the duration of the novel.

Silas decides to migrate to Texas, but the timing for him will be extremely dangerous. Texas is being invaded by not only Mexico, who does not want to give up the land themselves, but also the Comanches who are defending their own rights to hang on to land.

Jessica, Silas’ wife, also takes center stage through much of the novel. Her pro-abolitionist sympathies do not endear her to her Southern neighbors and her husband occasionally has to jump in to protect her from the results of her words and actions. The novel attempts to give a portrait of marraige and choice, with lesser themes of fidelty and child-rearing (for one example, how society viewed and treated both white and black children), as much as the times of the period.

Silas (along with two other wagon train leaders), has to find a route into Texas, avoiding Santa Anna’s armies, and also the marauding bands of Indians.

“Silas pointed to the river’s mouth on the map.

“We can cross the Sabine here at its estuary and make our way up through the bayou country through the pine forests north, then cut west to our land grants. If we cross where we’d intended” – he indicated a place farther up on the map – “we might run directly into Santa Anna’s army. He’s bound to be headed toward the eastern part of the territory where the largest settlements are located.”

“And by entering Texas from the south, should that madman have taken the territory, we’d have the biggest chance of retreat,” Jeremy said.

“That’s right.”

“I like it. The Comanche will be less of a threat as well.”

This book by Leila Meacham, a retired public school teacher, cannot be called ‘classical’ literature per se (such as “Gone with the Wind” might be). I feel (as do others who have reviewed the book), that it is a little light to be categorised as such. Meacham does not delve too deeply into her character’s motivations or personalities, but she does question the attitudes behind their decisions just enough to give the reader a desire to pursue reading to find out if they change throughout the course of the novel.

As the novel continues we are taken through the heartaches and struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction era, the arguments for and against a way of life in the South that ultimately had to change, and the founding of a state destined to survive and see many many changes over some of the most significant years of America’s history. “Somerset” is about one plantation family’s struggles to survive during these years, and their friendship and interactions with two other Texas families who become influential state founders over this time.

“It had been Henri’s idea for Silas and Jeremy to plant both the York and Lancaster roses in each other’s gardens as a symbol of unity between their houses….

Henry would grow both his friends’ roses as well, he announced to Silas and Jeremy in one of their meetings. It was his feeling that, when disagreements arose among them, as they invevitably would, the roses should serve as tokens to express what men of pride such as they could not bring themselves to articulate in speech.

“So if ever I should offend you, I will send a red rose to ask forgiveness,” he said, “and if ever I receive one tendered for that purpose, I will return a white rose to say that all is forgiven.”

Although the characters themselves were interesting, they did not draw me as much as the events of this period did. The history was fascinating for me to read and the author’s ‘teacher’ background was evident in the writing:

“I was reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s words in 1782 in his Notes on Virginia when I read that abominable tripe,” Jessica said, speaking to Tippy of the Compromise of 1850 when her friend finished reading its articles reprinted in the Democratic Telegraph and Register of Houston.

Tippy reached to take a sandwich from the plate Jessica offered. “And they were?”

“Jefferson said, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.'”

“Amen to that,” Tippy said. “It’s only a matter of a few years before the South feels the whip of that justice for enslaving the black man. All this compromise does is to buy time until war is declared between the North and the South.”

With themes such as slavery, fidelity in marraige, betrayal and loyalty (abolitionists, “Night Riders”, and such), women’s rights, and family name and place in society, Leila Meacham has written a novel that spans the years of 1806-1900 in the South and done it very competently! Although sometimes her plot devices and personal conflicts are a bit overused (in my estimation), she still did a fantastic job of portraying views from both sides of the pre-Civil war era and displayed them through the lives of her characters. Even though the last eighty or so pages of the novel were a bit too ‘soap-opera-ish’ for my taste, on the whole, “Somerset” is a great reminder to me of why I read historical fiction, and I look forward now to continuing with Meacham’s sequel, “Roses”.

“Cotton production, and subsequently Somerset and the planter culture, flourished in the 1850’s, despite the Panic of 1857 when the era of prosperity in the western and northern parts of the country came to an abrupt if temporary end. Demand for cotton in the United States, Mexico, and Great Britain was at an all-time high, ushering in the golden age of the plantation system and sparing the South and East Texas from the recession that affected other unrelated industries.

Somerset had led the region in feeding the jaws of the ever-increasing number of northern factories and textile mills that chewed up the raw bales of “white gold” and spun them into cloth. The phrase “Cotton is king” was coined in the middle of the decade, an apt description of a cash crop that accounted for one-half of all U.S. exports and strengthened Silas Toliver’s belief that war would never come.”


About Theresa

I live in an old farmhouse in upstate New York (no, *not* the big city!) in the country with my family, two dogs, two calves, and two horses. I love to cross stitch, quilt, read, and look at needlework blogs :) and I love coffee *and* tea!
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