Against the backdrop of the Civil War and its aftermath, Charles M. Clemmons' Aila's Journal is a thought-provoking, well-crafted historical novel focusing on the late 19th century racial struggles in the South.
The story centers on the friendship between Aila MacKenzie, a white indentured servant, and Mary Jane Sanders, a black slave, both living on a North Carolina plantation. Aila and Mary Jane meet at age 13; they have both discovered the same spot where they find solace and appreciate nature's beauty. Their friendship continues over the next 50-plus years as they face hardships, including sexual assault, Aila losing guardianship of her child, repercussions for attending mixed-race social gatherings, and more. Clemmons also weaves family secrets into the story.
Early on, war's tensions and devastation are revealed in the concerns of both landowners and their laborers. In one instance, readers witness a returning soldier facing what's referenced as "Soldier's Heart," a struggle with the mental consequences of battle that lead him to violence and self-destruction.
With the presence of the Ku Klux Klan after the war, Clemmons reveals how violence and hatred move beyond the battlefield in the form of beatings, lynchings, destructive fires, and familial loss. He skillfully presents both black and white characters with an innate will to survive.
While the subject matter is familiar, Clemmons delivers an action-filled storyline, rich in character and laced with details that draw readers into the narrative's heart. ... a provocative tale exploring history, family, friendships, and the struggle for equality among all.
*Mariann Regan, Yale University Doctorate in Literature & Professor Emerita of English, Fairfield University:
A strong and compelling book. The author, a North Carolina native, has been thorough in his research, from battlefield predictions to the etiquette of what is done and what is not done by servants in a Southern household. This author also understands the disagreements among the Southern characters when they speak of the Civil War and the North. Even Southern dialect and speech patterns are observed. Stereotypes of Northerners and Southerners, all too common in literature about the South, are refreshingly avoided and even at times contradicted.
This is an honest and important book, which reveals the entire spectrum of race relationships, from friendly to lethal, that we find within the history of the American South. The writer is honest and fair with his sources. Readers will be moved to think further about the history of our country.
*Liz Fuller, PhD:
Aila's Journal doesn't sugar-coat the past. The story, which can at times be brutal in its telling, follows the lifelong friendship of two North Carolina women from the 1860s to the 1920s. When they first meet, neither one is free. Aila, an indentured servant and Mary Jane, an enslaved field worker, are both being held in bondage on the same Cape Fear plantation. Just fourteen years old when the 13th Amendment is added to the Constitution, they rejoice in their newfound freedom. But the friends soon learn that becoming free and staying free are two very different things.
*Michael Donaghue, Historian:
Superb Historical Fiction. Historical fiction has two separate audiences, those who want to be informed about a particular historical epoch and those who value good writing and a search for meaningful and universal characters. Charles Clemmons, a native North Carolinian has deftly satisfied both groups.
The author paints a sympathetic portrait of the individuals at the center of the novel. Mr. Clemmons did his homework and gets the facts of history correct. Various elements of the war, the social and political consequences of emancipation, and the vicious efforts to deny blacks their new-found freedom and restore the old social order are all covered with insight.
The beauty of this book is that we get a taste of what it was like to endure tumultuous times as a member of society's underclass.
*Nelda Holder, Columnist for The Urban News-Gateway to the Multicultural Community:
The author successfully leaves us with a brutally clear vision of our own responsibility in nothing less than moving this country and its people forward, away from the same type of prejudicial ugliness that would seem to be gnawing at us today.
A North Carolina native with deep coastal historical/family ties, the author has chosen to present in fictionalized human terms what living through the end of this country's great Civil War and the beginning of "reconstruction" meant in such a social, religious, and moral maelstrom. His subject is an under-represented one in this state and in history.
So thank you, Charles Clemmons, for taking us to your own ancestral homelands on the coast and delving into the status during the nation's raw "reconstruction" meant to build a more inclusive democracy but riddled by the poisonous worms of prejudice, hatred, religious bigotry, and outright lawlessness. It is one thing to read statistics and historical data from that era. It is another altogether to fit your mind into Aila's or the other entirely plausible characters Clemmons has created in the book's social culture.
You may read Aila's Journal from the point of view of one individual woman -- not society as a whole. It is a fascinating story taken that way and it will offer perspectives on social mores that too seldom have been broached in our history. I suppose my hope would be that you also take this slap in the face to heart and set about having the bravery of this one significant protagonist and those she has befriended.
"Stirring historical fiction" - 5.0 out of 5 Stars
Author Charles Clemmons' stirring tale of the deep friendship between a white indentured servant and African American slave is both heartrending and enlightening. Well-researched and set in southeastern North Carolina during and after the Civil War, the reader is reminded of the cruelty and narrow mindedness that existed then, and startlingly still exists, in race relations and politics in American culture today, and the failure of Reconstruction in the South. Wonderfully crafted from the perspective of the story line, the descriptive prose, and the author's understanding of the dialect of both black and white from the region, the story comes alive, and the characters are easy to embrace. Unfortunately, the story is an old one, but until things truly change, it cannot be retold too many times. Alia's Journal takes us straight to the heart of the matter. It is an important read.
"Excellent book" - 5.0 out of 5 Stars
An often heart-wrenching fictional account of a forbidden lifelong friendship between two women, (one black and one white), woven among the sufferings and hardships of the rural south during post-Civil War reconstruction. This gifted author presents the stark contrast of the tragedy of this period in American history while portraying the tranquil beauty of it's setting in rural southeastern North Carolina. Thought provoking and well written.... a "must read".
"A story to love!" - 5.0 out of 5 Stars
A beautifully crafted, sometimes heartbreaking, story of two women dealing with the struggles of life in rural North Carolina during and following the Civil War. The descriptive writing allows the reader to truly visualize the joys, sorrows, and challenges of everyday life while learning about the late days of the Civil War and the challenges facing the South in the years following.
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About the Author
Charles M. Clemmons was born at home in the countryside near Clayton, North Carolina, on what is now a state forest. Growing up in the American South, working on his father's farm, and exploring 300 acres of forest accompanied solely by his faithful dog Snowball, proved to be formative life experiences.
He received a BS degree in Electrical Engineering from NC State University in 1966; an MBA from the University of Connecticut in 1976; and an AAS degree in Film & Video Technology from North Lake College in Irving, Texas (now Dallas College North Lake Campus), in 1994. In his 27-year career in the corporate world, he traveled extensively and resided in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Connecticut, and Texas.
Retiring from a corporate career in telecommunications in 1994 at age 50, he refocused on his real passions: documentary filmmaking, photography, being a father to his three children, and discovering the history and lifeways of his parents' families in Brunswick County, North Carolina.
In 2004, he was awarded two Boston/New England Emmy® Awards (writing and production) for the American Public Television documentary, Mystic Voices: The Story of the Pequot War. After 40 years in Connecticut, Charles returned to his roots in North Carolina in 2016.
His inspiration for Aila's Journal came from his own experiences and aspirations growing up in the American South, his own family's oral history, and his research on the Civil War and Southern Reconstruction.
Aila's Journal is his first novel.