Monday, July 16, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #30: Nord contre Sud

Florida was annexed to the American federation in 1819; it was organized into a state a few years afterwards. By the annexation the area of the republic was increased by some 67,000 square miles. But the star of Florida shines with second-rate brilliancy in that constellation of thirty-eight which spangle the banner of the United States of America.

Florida, throughout, is a low, narrow tongue of land, and its rivers, with one exception—the St. John's-owing to the narrowness of the country, are of no importance. From such a slight rise, there is not sufficient fall for the watercourses to be of any rapidity; there are no mountains, only a few lines of “bluffs” or low hills such as are numerous in the central and southern regions of the Union. In form the peninsula is not unlike the tail of a beaver dipping into the ocean between the Atlantic on the east and the Gulf of Mexico on the west.

North against South, also known in English as Texar's Revenge, tells the story of a Northerner and abolitionist, James Burbank, who owns a plantation in Florida in the midst of the Civil War. He is opposed by a man of Spanish background, named Texar, who has a longstanding grudge against him and who stirs up the pro-slavery sentiment against him in an attempt to burn down his plantation. Texar kidnaps Burbank's little daughter, Dy, and her caretaker, the recently freed slave, Zermah, and hides them deep in the Everglades.

The work, published in 1887, flopped in the United States; Americans were not particularly thrilled at a foreigner telling a tale about the Civil War, and the book was criticized as being shot through with inaccuracies. Not being a Civil War buff, and not making an effort to double-check timelines and such, I didn't notice anything outright. (And such inaccuracies would, in any case, have to be checked against the French, given how often Verne was garbled in translation.) But Verne very definitely has a decided view about the Civil War, and can't always resist lecturing about it. The example that really stood out to me was his adamant insistence that it was wrong to remove McClellan from command. This is contrary to the usual view that McClellan was a competent strategist but an overly cautious commander, and that Lincoln was probably right in thinking that he was neither aggressive enough in his approach nor, in talent, a match for the likes of Lee. There is, in any case, a considerably amount of nuance Verne has dropped, and it is perhaps not surprising that Americans were unwilling to be lectured about their own Civil War by someone who only knew about it secondhand. It probably also didn't help that the book is not like most of the works that really made his name.

The best way to approach the book, I think, is not to regard it as Civil War fiction so much as a mystery adventure set in the swamps of Florida in a broadly Civil War setting: Texar was seen, by an unimpeachable witness, in the very process of kidnapping Dy and Zermah; but he has an equally unimpeachable alibi for exactly that time. Once all the pieces for that are in place, it's just a race to solve the mystery before it is too late for Zermah and Dy.

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