Revisiting the Page 69 Test

The Page 69 Test

Posted on October 5, 2008 by David Fuller

Screenwriter David Fuller spent eight years researching Sweetsmoke, his first novel, and along the way discovered that he had ancestors who fought on both sides of the Civil War.Here is his take on the Page 69 Test applied to the novel:

I have applied the page 69 test to Sweetsmoke, the story of Cassius, a slave on a tobacco plantation in Civil War Virginia, 1862. Cassius goes after the murderer of a freed black woman, a woman who once saved his life and later taught him to read. Although it has a mystery at its core, it is first and foremost historical fiction, delving deeply into Cassius’s journey into knowledge, and hopefully, freedom. Page 69 is a fair example of that.Page 69 echoes the opening of the novel, which begins with two ten year-old boys about to fight one another, one black and a slave, the other white and the master’s grandson. Cassius watches as the tension of the moment hurls him back in memory, twenty years to when he himself was ten and faced the father of this white boy. It was the moment when Cassius learned that he was not free, that his actions had fierce consequences and his punishment was to be quick and permanent as he was sent to the fields two years early for unknowingly stepping out of line. Because of that, Cassius now knows precisely what will happen to Andrew, the young black slave, if he swings and hits the white boy.

On page 69, Cassius and Andrew walk together to the Big To-Do, an important function in which slaves from multiple plantations are allowed to get together and cut loose. It’s a simple moment, a man walking along a country road with a boy, a breath in the storytelling that comes between Cassius’s important discovery the night before that the woman who was murdered was a secret spy for the Union, and Cassius’s impending return to her home to meet her contact. All stories need these breaths, a chance to build tension as well as to expand and illuminate character. Walking along the road, Cassius quizzes Andrew about his new circumstances.Note: In Sweetsmoke, the dialogue of slaves is rendered without quotation marks. Freed blacks and whites, however, do have quotation marks. This is not a bow to post-modern literature, but a way to illuminate on the page that slaves have no voice in their society. It also illustrates key moments when whites speak bluntly and carelessly in front of their slaves, as if the slave is not there. This lack of quotation marks for slaves plays out with a certain irony, as Cassius’s voice is the most powerful in the novel.

They walked to Edensong, the Jarvis plantation. Clouds moved in and blocked the sun and a cool wind picked up.You got new pants, said Cassius.

Andrew nodded.

Cassius did not wish to press Andrew, but he knew that sometimes a young man needed to be prompted so that he understood he was being offered an opportunity to speak frankly.

New hat. New shoes, said Cassius.

Andrew turned his face to Cassius, and for a moment appeared older than his ten years as he searched Cassius’s expression for hidden meaning.

I work the fields now, said Andrew.

How’s that going?

Andrew shrugged, but a momentary wince around his eyes betrayed him. Cassius suspected Andrew had received a warning from his father Abram to withhold his complaints. It was likely that Andrew’s middle brother Sammy tormented him as Sammy himself had been tormented by his older brother Joseph when he had started in the fields.

Was your age when I went to the fields, said Cassius.

I thought you was a carpenter.

Didn’t start out that way. Had some trouble with the young master.

Oh. Charles? I mean, Master Charles?

No. Different young master.

This reference to the ‘different young master,’ so casually dropped into the conversation, disguises a deep dislike that Cassius harbors for Jacob Howard, Charles’s father.

Read an excerpt from Sweetsmoke, and learn more about the book and author at David Fuller’s website and blog.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.–Marshal Zeringue

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The Title Goes Unnamed

The new novel has had a title from the beginning, but as it will give away the content, I have kept it a secret. Soon, that secret will be out. But not yet, folks, not yet.

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Second novel coming

It has been a long process to get the new novel in shape, but after two years, it is close. I look forward to sending it out to my writer friend readers and getting notes.

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This is a test post…

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Am I blogging?

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Testing the waters…

testing the posting waters…

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New Blog Spot

My favorite essay (written by Dave) about SWEETSMOKE is now available for all to see at Royalty Free Fiction. Granted, royalty-free sounds like you ain’ t gettin’ paid for your work, but it actually means stories that include no kings, queens, or other royalty of any kind. The common folk in historical fiction, in other words. Please, go visit.

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First Meeting

I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed meeting the Onyx Core 8th Graders last week. Ms. Stivers’ classroom was filled, Ms. Stivers set everything up perfectly, she asked wonderful questions to get the conversation rolling, Mr. Greenfield was there as well, and his questions about the historical roots of writing the novel sent me off on tangents from which I still have not returned. I had a great time. And Glenn? After getting sidetracked, I’m guessing that I still haven’t answered your questions. Ask again, I’ll try to get to them sometime this century. We can start with the visit to Antietam.

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Character grid

8th graders at Lincoln are now reading SWEETSMOKE. Apparently, 35 8th graders. I understand how it can be difficult to deal with the number characters, and I made a character grid to help guide them between Scylla and Charybdis. It is important to understand that, if you are telling the story of the whole of a plantation, there are going to be a fair number of people involved. The other danger of making a grid is the spoiler alert factor. I have probably given away too much in terms of what happens to individual

characters. I have also given away the key to Ellen Howard’s character. I have been at many book groups where readers have said that they struggle to identify with Ellen Howard. I have what is perhaps a surprising affection for her, as well as feeling a great sadness on her behalf, and her journey is one of the most unusual in the book. There is a key to understanding her, and when I mention it in book groups, the readers all get that sparkle in their eye and say “Ohhh, that makes sense.”

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8th grade

Welcome Lincoln readers. It seems that I will need to reread my own book, as I am deep in the process of writing the next one, and a lot of the details of the old book, more info

which was written four years ago, are drifting away from me. Hopefully, when we all meet, you’ll help remind me of what I did. I hope you are enjoying the work so far.

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