cover image The Blood of Heaven

The Blood of Heaven

Kent Wascom. Grove, $25 (432p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2118-9

Making brilliant use of a little-known chapter in America’s history, Wascom’s gripping debut captures the pioneer spirit, lawlessness, and religious fervor of the Southern frontier. In the Louisiana Territory in 1799, teenaged Angel Woolsack and his abusive, hellfire-preaching father encounter their equals: preacher Deacon Kemper and his sons. Deacon also deals in guns. Angel becomes blood brother to Samuel Kemper and the two elude their fathers and flee to Natchez, where they alternate between preaching and armed robbery. “I believed crime was spiritual, robbery an act of faith.... In the process, both parties were brought close to God,” Angel says. Eventually they reach the Spanish-owned region known as West Florida, where Angel continues to engage in mayhem and the murder of agents of the law. In time the brothers become involved in Aaron Burr’s treacherous attempt to create an autonomous empire in Louisiana and Mexico. Angel is a hugely flawed hero, mixing biblical cadences with a Southern lilt, and pulsing with violence, religious hysteria, and sexual tension. Weaned on biblical prophecy and an angry deity, he’s unable to resist taking vengeance upon those who oppose him, believing his behavior to be God’s will, and Wascom’s visceral descriptions of slaughter are not for the fainthearted. Yet Angel is also devoted to his pistol-packing bride, Red Kate, and to his handicapped son, and the forces that shape his character and destiny are clear. While Angel is fictional, the Kempers were real figures, legendary for their ambition. In its depiction of a primitive, savage era and of man’s depravity, as well as its sensitive portrayal of souls “drowned in the blood of Heaven,” Wascom’s novel is a masterly achievement. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents. (June)