4 out of 4 stars
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In his historical fiction novel Of Ashes and Dust, Marc Graham takes his readers back in time to the mid-1880's in the United States where slavery existed and a war was about to erupt between the North and the South.
The main character, James Douglas Robbinson, also known as J.D., is a child of six when the story unfolds. Everything is recounted from his perspective as the years leap by and tragedy seems to find him. It's through his experiences and observations that we get a glimpse into the battlefield where men fought each other, even if they had once been friends, at the orders of others.
At first glimpse, a person might assume that this is a story about the Civil War, but there is much more depth to it than that. It's about J.D's relationships and his drive to find significance in life along with the fulfillment of love. Spanning over many years besides the war, J.D. finds himself in conflict with Indians, evil white men and even himself. Intermixed are references to the Bible's account of Job who lost everything in life. What does one do with those feelings? Do you lay down and give up, or do you carry on?
The major framework surrounding this story is that of life and death. What is the meaning of it all? In one scene, a character makes this statement: "'The point is, it's not just the good or bad a man does that defines him. Everything he does, every choice he makes, makes him a new man every day, every minute.''' From this quote, it is quite apparent that this novel's intent is not only to educate on historical events but to make the audience think about their actions and the impact it has on those around them. In J.D.'s case, how does he reconcile the fact that he has killed men in acts of war and other situations? How does he find inner peace after participating in ending the lives of others?
Very rarely does a book impact me emotionally the way that this one did. As I was reading and taking notes early on, I suddenly found myself at one point saying, "Oh. My. Gosh!" to an empty room. That is a sign that the author has done an excellent job in crafting a surprise you don't see coming until it is right before your eyes. I enjoyed that aspect of the storytelling throughout, and even up until the end, I had no idea how it was all going to conclude.
There are scenes of violence in this book, but that is to be expected when a war is underway. Also, there are adult situations regarding sexual relationships. However, I must say that the author did not go into graphic detail about either of these subjects. He makes suggestions toward them and leaves it up to the reader's imagination to fill in the rest. I found that refreshing because he didn't use any of this to try and 'sell' his story. For those who are offended by slight language or minor graphic scenes, then you probably need to stay away from this one. However, I do not generally like these topics either, but the author handles them delicately, and I was not turned off in the least.
I found slight punctuation errors along the way, but it was mainly regarding compound sentences. For example, there is a missing comma after the word moment: 'My spine stiffened in that moment and I was about to go after the men.' Punctuation is needed to set apart the two complete sentences. I would suggest another look at these types of sentences to be sure all is in order.
None of those mistakes I mentioned was enough to take away from the quality of the writing. I found myself wondering how I could acquire this author's autograph now before he becomes famous as this is his debut novel, and he writes like a veteran. For the outstanding retelling of American history wrapped up in an enthralling story, I am awarding this book a 4 out of 4 stars.
Of Ashes and Dust
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