Read Beans on Monday: Yellow Jack by Josh Russell

LOVE IN THE TIME OF COLOR-CONFLICT

(YELLOW FEVER & BLACK MISTRESSES)

Yellow Jack

by Josh Russell


Josh Russell’s fictional historic re-creation set in 1840’s New Orleans, Yellow Jack, is a quick and compelling read that whirls its reader through two equally tragic narratives: the destructive power of a love triangle in a time of conflicting social mores and the annual devastating epidemics of yellow fever, a.k.a. ‘yellow jack,’ that ran rampant through this swampy outpost.

Russell tells his story through the eyes of Claude Marchand, a fictional apprentice of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the first camera or daguerreotype. After Marchand has a falling out with his teacher he smashes Daguerre’s equipment, setting him back several years, and runs off to New Orleans to set himself up as part magician and part artist years before the photograph makes its European debut. Upon his arrival, though, Marchand takes to the streets in desperation and survives by using the pistol he’d taken from his master to rob locals. This theme of thievery rings true in New Orleans‘s history and serves as a good introduction to the danger the has always followed the city’s excess.

Marchand soon starts a transition to respectability, however, after he is taken in by a local painter and his octoroon mistress, Millicent. When Millicent tires of her mercurial lover and falls for Marchand, the young visionary again advances by stealing from a benefactor and chases the artist out of his own home, setting himself up to live as husband and wife with Millicent although the law forbids marriage of a white man and a woman of color.

Using a mix of voodoo and a woman’s savvy, Millicent helps Marchand rise to prominence while thwarting upstart rivals, yet newfound status soon puts Marchand on a collision course with his future wife, Vivian, the Lolita-esque daughter of a wealthy sugar planter. Marchand is barely in his late teens himself, and as the two age, their flirtation turns into a secret, illicit affair. Marchand dreams of marrying Vivian despite the fact that she is betrothed to a wealthy merchant from Boston, yet can never quite let go of his octoroon lover. Millicent can’t quite quell her fascination with Marchand, either, and vacillates between vengeful, heartbroken, and forgiving through a series of rejections and reconciliations. Because of the difficult spot she is in, being a free woman of color in an age where being in either minority limited your choices severely, Millicent is perhaps the only truly sympathetic character in the novel.

But this moral complexity is what makes Yellow Jack compelling. The race and gender relations can be shocking in places, but Russell has done his research and provides a seemingly accurate window in the times without interfering with modern moralizing. So much historic fiction is unnecessarily preachy or absurdly Django-istic revisionist that it’s nice to have an author paint a picture and let the reader come to his or her own conclusions. When Vivian’s father throws a party to celebrate stifling a slave rebellion at one of his plantations and greets Marchand in black face with a noose tied around his neck, the story unfolds as if it’s nothing unusual. Yes, we as the modern reader find the man repugnant, but Russell lets the reader feel this intuitively without spoon feeding us outrage. We shouldn’t excuse the sins of our forbearers, but it’s foolish and futile to expect them to have seen the world through our lens.

Using the ‘soliotype,’ as Marchand dubs it, as a metaphor, Russell weaves this love triangle around greater themes of ‘What is art?’ and ‘What is reality?’ Although confusing until you clue in on the narrative device, the story is cleverly told from three perspectives. It opens with an excerpt from a modern study of Marchand’s soliotypes housed in some unnamed museum or collection. The historian comments on the photos (never pictured) and tries to build a history from this scant evident. Marchand’s first person account then enters, answering many of the questions or contradicting the suppositions of the historian. Entries from Millicent’s journal also appear, providing a third contradictory point of view. Telling the story through these three perspectives, all interwoven throughout, highlights the uncertainty of historical research and tantalises the reader with the possibility of unraveling historical mysteries through a conversation with the subject in question. But even contemporary perspective is called into question, as Marchand’s and Millicent’s accounts (as well as contemporary newspaper articles cited in the historian’s study) often differ, calling into question the reliability of  perspective. Marchand, who we learn dies a madman at age 25 in the opening pages, is slowly driven insane by the mercury fumes used to develop his soliotypes, yet his first person narrative remains eerily lucid till the end, reflecting the unsettling truth that every madman thinks he’s perfectly sane.

Russell also uses his multi-perspective view to tell the story of the yellow fever epidemics that ravaged the city each summer as the mayor and newspapers denied its resurgence, hoping to keep commerce rolling. Marchand’s best friend, a doctor, eventually employs him to use this new technology to expose the coverup despite Marchand’s objections about what is and what isn’t ‘art.’ During these annual epidemics most wealthy families would flee and Russell does an excellent job of detailing the libertine atmosphere that reigned amongst those left behind. With their wives and children sent to ‘safety,’ wealthy merchants and planters were free to roam the streets with their mixed-race mistresses, and with death constantly at the door, the poor felt little need for restraint.

This is not a story for the fairy tale crowd. Marchand is a fitting protagonist in the age of the anti-hero (think of the popularity of Breaking Bad‘s Walter White, who ended his run this week!) Although viewing himself as an artist with strict morals and standards, Marchand’s actions prove him to be selfish, opportunistic, predatory, cruel, and unaware, although he is little different from others populating this burgeoning hedonistic frontier.

Yellow Jack was recommended to me by a librarian at the New Orleans Public Library, and I am grateful for the advice. While reading, I usually  set a page or chapter goal, often falling short, but with Yellow Jack I’d constantly blow past my stopping point, telling myself, “just a few pages more.” I’ve read a lot of histories lately, but the novelist can paint a picture rich with detail that fills in the holes left by the dry facts of history. Is it absolute truth? No, but it’s an informed guess and, as the author points out, truth is allusive even when documenting ‘fact.’ But such fictional speculation evokes the sights, smells, and sounds of bygone ages like rote history never can. So if you want to take a step back into New Orleans‘s sooty and sordid past, I’d highly recommend giving Yellow Jack a try.

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