Books: Fiction

A Moment in the Sun

Book — Fiction. By John Sayles. 2011. 955 pages.
Spanning five years and half a dozen countries, Sayles’ novel of historical fiction paints a picture of the late 1890s — from the racist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, to the bloody dawn of U.S. interventionism in Cuba and the Philippines.

Time Periods: 20th Century, 1900
Themes: Imperialism, Racism & Racial Identity, Social Class

momentinthesunWe seldom list novels here that are not written for middle or high school. However, A Moment in the Sun is well worth being an exception. John Sayles, best known for films such as Matewan, Lonestar, Brother from Another Planet, and Eight Men Out, has just completed this epic historical novel set at the turn of 19th century. The book draws its title from the W.E.B. DuBois’ quote about Reconstruction — a “moment in the sun” for African Americans.

Sayles shows through the stories of 35 vivid characters how the sun sets at the turn of the century throughout the United States and many parts of the world due to the racism in our domestic and foreign policy. The book offers an extraordinary and memorable combination of great literature and in-depth historical research. It is Zinn’s A People’s History in a novel — focusing on a turning point in U.S. history. While the characters are spread as far afield as Alaska, New York, Wilmington (NC), the Philippines and more — it becomes clear that they are all closely connected by the threads of racism, classism, and imperialism.

Though known best as a filmmaker (Eight Men Out), Sayles is also an accomplished novelist (Union Dues), whose latest will stand among the finest work on his impressive résumé. Weighing in at nearly 1,000 pages, the behemoth recalls E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Pynchon’s Against the Day, and Dos Passos’s USA trilogy, tracking mostly unconnected characters whose collective stories create a vast, kaleidoscopic panorama of the turn of the last century. Hod Brackenridge is a miner who gets swindled in the Alaskan gold rush, is strong-armed into a boxing match, and ends up on the run after his opponent dies in the ring. Diosdado, son of a Spanish diplomat, turns against his country and the United States to fight for independence in the Philippines. The most emotionally connected story line involves the black American soldiers who breeze through fighting in Cuba but get stuck in a quagmire in the Philippines while their families back home in Wilmington, N.C., endure a campaign of murder and intimidation that forces an affluent and educated black family out of their home and into poverty in New York City. Naturally, there are cameos — Mark Twain, President McKinley — and period details aplenty that help alleviate the occasional slow patches — indeed, Hod’s story line loses steam toward the end — but the flaws and muck of this big, rangy novel are part of what make it so wonderful. — Publishers Weekly

ISBN: 9781936365180 | McSweeney’s

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