“History written by men reveals no cowards except those of the enemy, tells of great deeds of worth and cause, but shows only one face, and fails to distinguish the testimony of those consumed by its passing.” – Michael Kinnett
Michael Kinnett’s Apalachicola Pearl is clearly a work of a lover of history. This tale of one Florida city’s role in the Civil War is based on Kinnett’s research into the annals of the city. In his preface, Kinnett claims that his novel is based upon “journals I found hidden beneath a floorboard in the attic of the Orman House Museum.” Whether this is true or the author’s invention is a matter for reader conjecture. If true, Kinnett is indeed fortunate to have found such a trove of material; if it is a literary invention, it is a wonderfully clever one.
The novel is a melange of two forms: while it purports to be the journal of the main character, one Michael Brandon Kohler, it eventually evolves into a historical adventure. Further – the character who gives her name to the title to the novel, LaRaela Retsyo Agnusdei, known to both characters and readers as Pearl, appears only briefly in the novel near its beginning and at its end.
Either of these choices on the part of the author might seem to jar the reader enough to make the novel an unsatisfying read, but the narrative is packed with so much action and historical information that one is carried along by the quick pace and the wealth of detail about 19th century Florida life that Kinnett offers.
After a couple of brief chapters giving us background on Brandon Kohler’s life up to the beginning of the Civil War (including his parents’ tragic deaths from – presumably – Yellow Fever when he is in his late teens), the narrative leads forward 20 years to being the reader to the beginning of the most painful conflict in American history. Though located in Florida, Apalachicola was, at the time the war began, a cotton shipping center whose booming economy made it a spot frequented by both Southern planters and Northern traders. Once the war has begun in earnest the city finds itself caught in the struggle among multiple opposing forces: a Union blockade, Confederate forces north of the city, and renegades calling themselves the Rebel Guard.
The struggles of Apalachicola’s citizens to survive the privations of war, Union occupation, the demands of the Confederate army for supplies form one half of the narrative. The personal struggles of Brandon Kohler as he struggles to win the woman he loves, save Pearl from her abusive father, and with the help of his friend Stillman Smith (a Union operative posing as a slave) and the fortuitous aid of his childhood friends Hatch and Jacob, foil the Rebel Guard’s plans to rob and terrorize the town form the other half. Eventually, these two halves of the novel merge in a series of set pieces that are exciting, frightening, and eventually happy. Kohler finds out the truth about his parents’ death and deals with its perpetrator, a leader of the Rebel Guard. The story ends with the war ended, Pearl safely adopted by Kohler and his wife Caroline, and Apalachicola freed.
Kinnett says in the preface that he found two journals and that Apalachicola Pearl is based upon the first of them. It will be interesting to see where the second journal takes the story.