The Power of Point of View

(Guest Post on Sarah Johnson’s “Reading the Past” Blog 2013)

Sarah Johnson’s wonderfully written review of Inheritance, the first book in my historical novel trilogy, Southern Son: The Saga of Doc Holliday points out one of the challenges in writing fiction set during the American Civil War and Reconstruction: the difficulty of dealing with the “inherent racism” of the time. Although the Southern Confederacy was fighting for more than slavery in its war on the Federal government, the perpetuation of the “peculiar institution” was at the core of the fight. So a writer telling a story set in the Old South has to acknowledge the central issue of the era, even if that issue isn’t a central theme of the book.

It would be tempting to insert one’s modern perceptions into the narrative, commenting on or criticizing the racist attitudes of the times. Such editorial comment, however, puts a distance between the reader and the characters and detracts from the sense of time and place of the story. How, then, to accurately show the social ills of the Old South without seeming to approve of them? Without some negative commentary the story might seem to celebrate the institution of slavery.

My solution to this literary dilemma was found in telling the entire story of Southern Son in the Third Person Limited point of view, never leaving the mind of John Henry Holliday. The reader sees only what John Henry sees, hears, or learns, which means that there is no escape from witnessing, and being party to, his 19th-century attitudes. He doesn’t consider himself racist (the term may not even have existed in his vocabulary), and he offers no apology for having such thoughts—which the reader then has to share.

Of course this is sometimes uncomfortable, as it is meant to be. The narrator doesn’t need to tell us that John Henry’s attitudes are wrong, and the writer certainly doesn’t need to step in and make the point. The reader will draw those conclusions, being uncomfortable with the things John Henry says and does but unable to get away from those things. The effect is a very personal experience with the mind and heart of a 19th-century man in the last days of the Old South.

Yet, in spite of his many flaws or perhaps because of them, John Henry remains a very sympathetic character. When he does wrong, we want him to do right. When he fails, we want him to succeed. Such personal emotion for an imagined character is the power of the Third Person Limited point of view, putting us solely in the heart of the protagonist and no one else. We care about his life, because his life is all we have. 

The second book in the trilogy, Gone West, introduces John Henry to the historical character of Barney Ford, a former runaway slave turned wealthy hotel owner. When Holliday unthinkingly comes to the man’s defense, it’s a telling action that his racial attitudes are changing. By the end of the third book, The Last Decision, Holliday himself comments on the racist attitudes of others, as he finally learns what the reader always knew. And through the Third Person Limited point of view, in the end, we share in his victories. 

But Southern Son isn’t about race, any more than John Henry’s life was about racist thinking. It’s a story of heroes and villains, dreams lost and found, families broken and reconciled, of sin and recompense and the redeeming power of love—all seen through the eyes of an American legend.