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Book Review: Young adult novel highlights South’s post-Civil War struggle with racism

By Robert Gold

St. Augustine Record, 5/21/2018

A splendid novel set in 19th-century St. Augustine, “Redfish Oak” is entertaining, well-written and a pleasure to read.

Historically based, “Redfish Oak” reveals the old city as it existed almost 150 years ago. Accompanying the story, readers will find descriptions of the town, mentions of its architecture, buildings, streets and well-known sites still extant as well as the many ethnic people who resided here. St. Augustine’s culture, socio-economic structure and local politics are also revealed along with the narrative. Though the book is a so-called Young Adult novel, it will appeal to older adults as well as teenagers.

The story takes place at the end of the Reconstruction Era and features a white girl, a young Native American warrior and a black boy as protagonists. It emphasizes the city’s struggle with racism following the Civil War and the Indian Wars. The arrival of captive Plains Indians sent to Fort Marion for imprisonment inflames the community and adds to the intense bitterness still evident in the South following the war, emancipation and the detested reconstruction acts.

The attitude of the town was diametrically different from its previous existence as a Spanish city. In the two preceding centuries, many blacks not only walked the streets of St. Augustine freely, but also served as soldiers in the army and, for a time, even lived in Mose, the first free black settlement in the United States. Christianized Indians likewise lived freely in and about St. Augustine.

Whatever the irony of the change of cultural values, post-war St. Augustine was a town where blacks and Native Americans faced not only intolerance, but hostility. Of course, there were those in the community, who looked at them without such prejudice and the young girl, Nan, the lead protagonist in the story was a prime example. Upset by a prejudiced murder investigation, she leads her two young friends on a mission to change the town’s intolerance.

“Redfish Oak” is a touching story as well as a sound historical novel. A striking illustration of the “Redfish Oak,” today’s 600-year-old Senator, appears on the book’s red cover.

Q&A with author Jewel Grutman

1. What inspired you to write this book?

Jewel Grutman: As an amateur historian of Native Americans, I was aware of the Plains Indians’ arrival in 1875 and thought it would make a good story. George and I worked together before on a screenplay that focused on a single incident in the Lewis and Clark expedition and its imagined aftermath as seen through the eyes of a Blackfoot warrior.

2. What type of research was involved?

We read about Reconstruction. We read bios of Grant and of Nathan Bedford Forrest and others. We read a book about the arrival of the Plains Indians to St. Augustine, Capt. Pratt’s autobiography of his years trying to re-educate thousands of Indians, several histories of St. Augustine and a book of art created by one of the Native Americans in Fort Marion. We also did much research locally.

3. How would you describe your writing process?

Together, but on the phone and via email, we hammered out a structure, then George took the lead on the writing, a chapter at a time. We discussed each one until it was good enough to put to bed, then went onto the next. It took two years. The actual manuscript preparation after the novel was completed was a joint exercise.

4. What do you hope readers will get out of the book?

First, an appreciation of a compelling story. Then an acknowledgment that despite the best efforts of courageous people to reduce racial hatred, it appears to be an enduring part of human nature.

5. Who is your favorite writer?

I prefer classic Russians like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, as well as popular crime writers like John Sanford, Lee Childs and historic fiction writers like Hillary Mantel, Steve Berry and Shusako Endo. George reads mostly nonfiction. His favorite historians are Ron Chernow and Joseph Ellis. For fiction, we both like James Lee Burke.