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Another Review

January 28, 2017

From the Guild Review: (link here)

January 26, 2017

Journey to Colonus: A Historical Novel and Much More

Franklin Debrot’s debut novel, Journey to Colonus, though a work of historical fiction long in the making, is a work for the present day, with themes of racial conflict, political divisions, campus agitation, and Russian influence in America. That all this is discussed in a novel which is well crafted makes it a very worthy candidate for your 2017 reading list.

The story begins in 1969, on the campus of a fictional black college in North Carolina, at a time of considerable political maneuvering, with alliances and factions abounding. Our main character, Thomas Doswell, a college professor, stands oddly apart from all this, focusing instead on great works of literature and philosophy. Through his unfolding relationships with his teaching assistants, we learn not only about his approach to education and the vicissitudes of their personal lives, but first and foremost about Doswell’s secretive and dynamic past, including involvement with the Communist International.

Journey to Colonus has a measured pace. It takes much of the novel for all the key pieces to get into place, but Debrot ensures that these parts are as compelling as the whole. There are a few moments where the jumping between decades is a bit disorienting, but I was overwhelmingly impressed by Debrot’s ability to develop characters and weave together the disparate elements of their stories. (As someone who has toyed with writing fiction, I can tell you that it’s harder than it looks, arguably far harder than writing non-fiction.)

Debrot’s novel rests on solid historical ground. An extensive appendix points to many of the author’s sources for historical context. (From my own reading in American history and the history of the Comintern, including this biography of one agent, Journey to Colonus gets both the broad dynamics and the particular details right.) Moreover, the novel overlaps heavily with Debrot’s own biography: growing up in New York, among the West Indian community, and teaching at a black college in North Carolina in the 1960s. This is familiar territory for him.

Some might object to what they see as an overly conservative book. After all, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s role in the Tydings Committee’s investigation of Communists in the State Department, for example, comes off broadly positive. But accusations of partisanship would be a superficial misreading of Journey to Colonus. The novel acknowledges that McCarthy was right, or very nearly so, about matters of national importance, but it also recognizes some unsavory elements of his personal life and tactical mistakes in his pursuit of Soviet influence. More to the point, Debrot’s profoundly humane novel shows that people’s actions, both personal and political, arise from a wealth of diverse influences. Without excusing immorality, Journey to Colonus acknowledges that results often differ from intentions, that people are sometimes funneled by their pasts into certain paths, and that appearances are not always what they seem.

At its heart, this novel addresses a topic that has been of considerable interest to me in the last few years, a topic found from Shakespeare’s plays to such recent television shows as The Crown and The Man in the High Castle, namely the intersection of the personal and political. National and international politics do not simply happen on their own: they are the products of individuals and their interactions, with all the quirks that entails. Likewise, politics does not simply exist in newspaper headlines, but has real implications for the lives of individuals. All of which makes the pursuit of wisdom and authentic relationships so important. Journey to Colonus is an enjoyable and enlightening guide along that path.

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