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.
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