Books
3:06 pm
Mon June 29, 2009

Steve Renfroe, by Katherine Kilgore

By the end of the novel, I had become so irritated with Caroline and so unsympathetic, that I no longer cared whether she decided to go to Florence, Alabama, to teach school or marry the lawyer from Birmingham or do whatever else she wants. Good luck to her.

There was an actual, historical, Steve Renfroe. In fact, there is a nonfiction book about Renfroe, "Alabama's Outlaw Sheriff, Stephen S. Renfroe." Even though I don't usually review self-published novels, I was curious as to what I might learn about Renfroe and Reconstruction in Sumter County. The answer is: not much.

The historical Renfroe may have been an enigma, but a novelist must finally determine what her opinion of the protagonist is and what she wants the reader to conclude. Kilgore, the author of two previous historical novels, "The Saber and the Rose" and "Tame the Wind," never does.

Renfroe was a man of uncertain origins who came to Livingston, Alabama, during Reconstruction. In this novel, little is learned about his childhood or family, but, probably, his father was a monster who beat him. His father was probably also a drunk, and Renfroe has what looks like an unfortunate inherited weakness for alcohol. Late in the story, after it is clear he is guilty of a wide variety of bad behaviors, he writes his wife, Caroline, a kind of apology: "? it was the whiskey that nearly ruined me. When I got to drinking, it almost crazed me. I didn't know what I was doing, and said things for which I am hardly responsible."

During the war, we are told, Renfroe rode with Bedford Forrest, saw a lot of action and killed a great many men in battle. Regarded as a hero, he is elected sheriff.

During Reconstruction, however, the rules of engagement are not so clear. Livingston's representative to the state legislature is a carpetbagger, John Bingham, a Republican and an articulate white New Englander. Bingham not only believes in racial economic justice and equality, he gives speeches denouncing the sexual practices of slave masters who forced their female slaves to submit, and "established them in his very home. Under the eyes of his wife, concubines and their illegitimate offspring swelled the master's stock." Further infuriating the local white men, Bingham marries Angela, "a quadroon of exquisite beauty. Slender, ivory-skinned,?[with] soft dark curls." This is too much, so the local KKK murders Bingham, whether out of anger or envy would be hard to say. There is very little outrage in Livingston, or on the part of the novelist, at his death.

Bingham leaves the book early, but his influence lingers on. Caroline, it seems, loved Bingham and only married Renfroe out of spite and anger, from battered pride, to hurt Bingham.
Renfroe, however, with his black moustache, is quite a specimen. "The broad shoulders, the powerful grace of his movements had a magnetic, almost animal quality. Beneath the white muslin gown her knees went weak."

Caroline may go weak in the knees, but on the honeymoon her wifely duties do not come naturally. "'I didn't like it,' she said. 'I don't want you to touch me again. Not ever! I want?I want to go home!'? But of course the next night he did, holding her down."

The reader notices early on that this novel is in large segments very Gone with the Wind-y, but Scarlett finally has real strengths and Rhett has secret virtues and is more of a gentleman than he appears. Renfroe has only secret vices and crimes. He turns out to be a Klansman, night rider, murderer, embezzler, liar, adulterer, thief, drunkard and rapist so even though he spends time doing convict labor in a coal mine, one finally gives up entirely caring what happens to him.

By the end of the novel, I had become so irritated with Caroline and so unsympathetic, that I no longer cared whether she decided to go to Florence, Alabama, to teach school or marry the lawyer from Birmingham or do whatever else she wants. Good luck to her.

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