Historical fiction is frequently set during times of great change, centering around eras of political and social upheaval. This is especially true of Civil War fiction novels, which take readers back to a bygone era in which proper historical context is essential. Unfortunately, the roots of Civil War romance novels, including Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, have employed harmful and outdated stereotypes, whitewashed narratives, and recycled tropes for their storytelling. For this reason, Civil War romance stories are in desperate need of a fresh, more historically-conscious perspective.
Luckily, contemporary additions offer a much-needed shift in diversifying the Civil War genre — ditching defunct tropes for more historically-rich storytelling with complex characters. Barbara Sontheimer’s debut novel, Victor’s Blessing, is one such example of a new dawn in Civil War romance that uplifts humanity and suitably shapes historical memory. Let’s discuss!
Gone With The Wind: A Problematic Precedent
The so-called “Great American novel” comes with a long and controversial history. Upon the release of its screen adaptation, the NAACP protested against the film on the grounds that it perpetuates harmful racial stereotypes. Most recently, in 2020, HBO Max temporarily pulled the movie from their platform after film director John Ridley’s opinion piece called for its removal. Denouncing the Hollywood blockbuster, Ridley notes:
It is a film that, when it is not ignoring the horrors of slavery, pauses only to perpetuate some of the most painful stereotypes of people of color.John Ridley in The LA Times
Evidently, as the hallmark of Civil War fiction, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind is a problematic precedent for a subgenre where historical context is everything. Many loosely cite the 1936 read and its screen adaptation as a troublesome product of its time, which, through our contemporary socio-political lens, is glaringly biased and historically distortive.
For those unfamiliar with the story, Gone With The Wind is set on a Georgia plantation during and after the Civil War. The romance element of the story centers on Scarlett O’Hara, a headstrong Southern Belle, and daughter of the plantation owner. Much of the story is spent on the struggle to keep the plantation running, absurdly romanticizing the life of the family slaves. Such uncomfortable oversights of the novel and motion picture alike invoke a responsibility for authors and readers to address harmful stereotypes in media and avoid them in modern storytelling.
History and Myth
In the decades since Gone With The Wind, there are some notable common themes found in Civil War romance arcs. As a historical event, the Civil War backdrop for a romance tale principally involves themes of rebirth and war-torn love. Both of these lean heavily on soldier narratives and blind patriotism. They also tend to favor the South’s point of view.
Broadly, when popular story arcs view the Civil War in isolation from a broader historical context, it brings about incomplete stories of heroic misunderstanding rather than raw insights into the longstanding incongruity of America’s founding values. That is, a founding doctrine of freedom that so desperately clung to a system of slavery.
This phenomenon of tempering the Civil War in popular culture is a tried-and-true way to evade facing and exploring heavy historical truths. As summed up by author Ta-Nehisi Coates:
When it comes to the Civil War, all of our popular understanding, our popular history and culture, our great films, the subtext of our arguments are in defiance of painful truths. It is not a mistake that Gone With The Wind is one of the most read works of American literature or that The Birth of a Nation is the most revered touchstone of all American film. Both emerge from a need for palliatives and painkillers, an escape from the truth of those five short years in which 750,000 American soldiers were killed…
The implications of the true story are existential and corrosive to our larger national myth.Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years In Power
With all this in mind, the contemporary task of writing Civil War romances centers on determining how stories can spearhead informative and comprehensive insights into a tumultuous time period while still making readers swoon.
Finding Historical Clarity
In order to achieve such a breadth of objectives, a fresh perspective is needed to break the longstanding barriers of the genre. One new release, Victor’s Blessing, offers significant insight into how to tell a story of great historical scope with depth and honesty, while still maintaining steamy romantic content.
The central love story of this novel is between a multiracial couple, Victor and Celena, whose journey spans multiple decades before and after the Civil War. Though set in a diverse Missouri town, the author does well to highlight disparities of class, different manifestations of love, and rifts within families that make for a very well-rounded historical picture. Constructed from years of meticulous research, Barbara Sontheimer’s drive to tell a Civil War-era story from a fresh perspective is apparent from start to finish. The whole cast is multi-dimensional, never reduced to shortsighted stereotypes or historical oversights.
Particularly of note is how the novel puts humanity at the forefront of its storytelling. In one striking instance, Victor and Celena stumble across an illegal slave auction during their trip to Washington, D.C.
Upon seeing this horrible scene, Celena and Victor become overcome and desperate to do something, anything, to help one of the individuals. Without thinking, the pair end up buying one of the slaves in order to set him free. Though, as they soon discover, the man was long forcibly separated from any relatives. He is alone. The most they can do is to let him live out his life as a free man, running the local blacksmith shop with Victor.
This encounter — and the novel as a whole — does well to frame slavery not as a political talking point but as a matter of sheer and complete inhumanity responsible for generational traumas. Thus, for romance fans who want something heartwarming to read without sacrificing historical clarity, Victor’s Blessing is a premiere introduction to the Civil War fiction genre today. With debut authors like Barbara Sontheimer leading the way, we can all look forward to transcending the genre’s problematic past.