After the commercially successful 1966 “Man From Uncle” novel generated practically no money in his pocket, Harry Whittington went to work as an editor in the US Department of Agriculture, working for the Rural Electrification Administration. "I'd reached the low place where writing lost its delight.” (quote from author Ben Bridges blog).
In 1974, at age 59, Whittington quit his government job and went back to writing full-time. From his small but elegant house overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, he wrote his comeback novel, “Master of Blackoaks” (1976), a Deep-South 'slave gothic' written as Ashley Carter (Whittington's own name appears on the copyright page).
“Master of Blackoaks” was a hit. It's also an awesome book. Family drama, intrigue, violence, mucho sex and social commentary abound as the drama unfolds among members of the Baynard Family and their slaves on the struggling Alabama plantation known as Blackoaks.
The book reminded me of Ken Follett's “Pillars of the Earth” with all the characters jockeying for position to achieve divergent goals. The plantation violence is raw and in-your-face. The sex scenes are well executed. The slaves, masters and interlopers are vivid characters.
The book tackles difficult questions about race and culture without ever being racist or showing a lack of compassion for those swept up in the morally repugnant culture of slavery. The economic realities of the plantation life were explained well in the story as the masters of Blackoaks struggled to survive.
The book spawned three sequels that I can't wait to read.
Whittington learned propulsive plotting from his Gold Medal crime and western novels. Although this isn't an action novel, he brings the same discipline to this lost masterpiece. Despite the cover, it's not a romance novel. It's a literary novel with crazy family drama swirling for nearly 500 hard-to-put-down pages.
Hat tip to Ben Bridges on the background regarding the creation of this book and Pete Brandvold for alerting me to its existence.