March 2, 2013

The Disease of Slavery

Fever Season, the second novel in Barbara Hambly’s Benjamin January series, is about slavery, murder, robbery, and kidnapping. The title refers to Bronze John, as the yellow fever is called, and his cousin cholera who invade New Orleans every summer, moving like ghost through the city, permeating every household, every street, attacking slaves and masters.

Though Bronze John's hand touched everyone, white, black, and colored, it was mostly the whites who died of it and, of them, more often the whites who'd flocked into New Orleans from the United States--the rest of the United States, January Corrected himself--or from Europe.

Slavery, too, is a disease that affects both slave and master, but often has a more deleterious effect on the masters, causing them to think of fellow human beings as animals and sometimes to be treat worse than animals.

When Bronze John comes calling most of the rich white folks with their slaves leave the city. Benjamin January, amateur detective and free man of color, wouldn’t leave even if he could. He remains and helps care for the victims of the fever at the Charity Hospital, comforting the living and helping carry away the dead. He again finds himself in trouble when he agrees to delivery a message from Cora, a slave woman, to her husband Gervase, a slave in the house of a Creole woman, Delphine Lalaurie, whose two daughters Benjamin gives piano lessons.

Benjamin soon discovers that Cora is considered a runaway and wanted by the law. She is accused of killing her master Otis Redfern, trying to kill his wife Emily, and stealing a string of pearls and $5000. Before he can confront her to get the real story, for he feels something is wrong, she disappears. Even Rose Vitrac, a free woman of color who runs a school for girls and knew Cora when she was a girl of 13, has not seen her. However, Cora left $190.00 and a string of pearls that belonged to Emily in a bag in a desk in Rose’s school. To complicate matters further for Benjamin, Rose, whom he is growing fond of, also disappears.

Slaves whose masters allow them to work and sleep in the city to earn money to buy their freedom and some free persons of color with no connection to anyone are also disappearing. From the boatman Natchez Jim who carries people and goods up and down the river, Benjamin confirms his suspicions that someone is kidnapping slaves and blacks who have no one to ask about them. Natchez Jim tells him, “A runaway is money out of someone’s pocket. And maybe money in someone else’s as well.” The people being kidnapped are sold to owners of cotton plantations in the Missouri Territory. Benjamin is thrown into deep depression and fears for Cora and Rose.

When trouble comes to Benjamin, it comes in bunches. A jack-legged doctor named Emil Barnard whom he caught stealing from the dead victims of the fever accuses him of killing a man who was stabbed in a fight and whom Benjamin tried to help by stopping the bleeding. Barnard doesn’t stop harassing him after the judge throws the case out. He plants stories in the newspapers accusing Benjamin of murder and of insulting to her face a very important lady (white of course). The result is Benjamin loses his piano pupils, and the agent who assigns music jobs limits him to the lesser balls and doesn’t hire him, the best piano player in New Orleans, to perform at the opera. Benjamin suspects someone with strong connections in the Creole and American communities that go all the way to city hall has a grudge against him and Barnard is just a pawn.

To maintain the suspense in Fever Season Hambly withholds the answers to three questions:
Who killed Otis Redfern and tried to poison Emily Redfern?
Where are Cora and Rose?
Who is Benjamin’s enemy?

The answers are indeed surprising.

The four women who drive the main and subplots are a complicated mixture that kept me wondering what would they do next. The issue of slavery is depicted through Cora. Emily Redfern represents the Americans desire for social acceptance in the Creole culture. Delphine Lalaurie, the Creole woman, is the most powerful character in the novel next to Benjamin. Rose Vitrac, free woman of color, shows that not all mulattos become mistresses. Finally, there is the legendary Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau.

Fever Season continues the enjoyable storytelling that Hambly began in A Free Man of Color.