What if the South won the Civil War: a review of The Jazz Cage

“A civilian job?”

“Uh-huh, but one with a bit more color.”

As the office echoed with unpleasant laughter again, Frank suddenly realized that, if the stuffed piranha assumed human form, it would no doubt look like Lucky Luciano.

The Jazz CageIf the South won the Civil War … That’s the premise for the “Roaring Twenties” thriller The Jazz Cage. Author Ray Smith sent me an e-copy for review (sorry about the wait, Ray!) and told me, “Think of it as Uncle Tom’s Cabin meets The Untouchables.

The description fits. On one hand, The Jazz Cage is about two runaway slaves trying to find freedom, but it’s got some booze, corruption, and gangster-style gunfighting, too. As I’ve said in previous posts, it’s not exactly a book I’d grab right off the shelf. History never wants to stick in my head, so I’m ashamed to say I wouldn’t know Famous General X from the guy who lives down the street. I’m a little fuzzy on battles and law, too. Smith’s book is peppered with dates, events, and names, and sometimes that information is distracting, like he wanted to cram as much in where he could — which isn’t necessary since the focus of the book is less on what would change if the South won the war and more about slavery and abolition.

Now, that’s coming from a reader who isn’t so concerned with accuracy or alternate histories. I’m sure if my best friend were here right now, she might have different comments to make, just like she did during Lincoln — Daniel Day-Lewis be damned. But when a book is set 60 years after the South won the Civil War — which didn’t happen — you expect its story to play out in a way you haven’t really seen before. The Jazz Cage basically follows two slaves who run away and the people who try to help or stop them.

Maybe Smith did work some historical “what if” magic on the book, or maybe there are subtleties I’m not noticing. (In that case, Smith — I’d love to talk those over with you, so email me!) But what I read didn’t seem to depend so much on a timeline shift as it did slavery and freedom, and you don’t need to alter history to write that.

But whether or not that’s an oversight of the book doesn’t much matter as I generally have no complaints about the story itself. I actually enjoyed it, which doesn’t usually happen with me and history anything. Smith has a knack for writing characters with good personality quirks and ending each chapter (all 116 of them) on an effective cliffhanger. They’re fairly short, so the pages whizzed by — in no smart part due to his clean and carefully crafted writing.

The Jazz Cage is Smith’s second novel but the first that he found “fit for public consumption,” according to the author page, which also says he’s happy to receive and answer emails from readers — which I like. And maybe you’ll want to, especially if you like talking history.

I’m not that kind of girl, but if I wasn’t reviewing this book here on my blog, I’d be glad to tell Smith how much I enjoyed his characters — who through the painting of details stood out clearly in my mind like real people — and his suspenseful action scenes. I mean, car chases and gun fights — Underground Railroad meets Prohibition-era mobsters? If pushing slavery into the 1920s was all the platform that Smith needed to write this book, then I’m all for the South winning the war.

Bottom line: A surprisingly fun and well written twist on history — even if entertainment is the bigger focus.

What I liked: The characters drive the story and grow on you. By the time you finish the book, you’ll be sad to see the good ones go.

What I wasn’t expecting: A fun Civil War book!

Grade: B+

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