What an unsung classic! Despite its having won the Pulitzer in its day, this is not a title that folks recognize instantly. My book group chose it for a topical read during Black History month--February--and I thought it was amazing. That it was written by a white man, 150 years after the fact, was even more so. It is a balanced, indicting look at the conditions of slavery preceding the War Between the States and subtly but unmistakably points the finger right where it belongs.
In 1831 in Virginia there occured the only large scale negro slave revolt in American history led by an educated slave named Nat Turner. Most of the history of that account was supressed by the slave owners lest their slaves get ideas. This is a fictionalized account of that uprising and the amazing man who led it. The author has stuck to the facts so far as they are now known but took liberties with the individual conversations and doings of those involved.
This was both more entertaining and more graphic than I was expecting it to be. I expected some kind of dry, fact-by-fact account of an event in the history of the U.S. Instead, this book brought Nat Turner to life for me. The author states in the foreword that he had very little to draw from when creating the novel; therefore, he took liberties.
I have no idea why this novel (fiction, mind you) is labeled "racist" by so many. I found myself caring for Nat and although not condoning his actions at the end of his journey, most certainly understanding them. I thought Styron dealt fairly with both, complex sides of Nat: a caring, religious-minded, genuinely good person and the man who had simply had enough of the blatant unfairness of his own life and the lives of fellow blacks. (I don't say slaves because there are examples of injustices to freed slaves appearing throughout the book). I almost screamed with rage at one point in the book because of the injustice Nat had to endure at the greedy hands of a so-called man of God.
Injustice and unfairness happen to everyone, some of us more harshly than others and on a larger scale. I think this is what makes this novel so appealing; every human being can relate to that. I think Styron's ultimate message to humanity was excellent, too, and a lesson for us all: don't condemn all of one race because of a few individuals.
My wife read this book quite some time ago, and could not provide an adequate review. In place of that, I am including an excerpt from the back cover of the book below. I hope this helps.
"In 1831 a black man awaits death in a Virginia jail cell. His name is Nat Turner, and he is a slave, a preacher, and the leader of the only effective slave revolt in the history of that "peculiar institution". William Styron's vastly ambitious and stunningly accomplished novel, winner of the Pultzer prize, is Turner's confession made to his jailers under the duress of his God, a narrative that depicts a good man's transformation into an avenging angel even as it encompasses all the betrayals, cruelties, and humiliations that made up slavery - and that still scar the collective psyches of both races."