Monday, April 21, 2008

Shades of Gray

"You think I think that an artist's job is to tell the truth," says U.S. Poet Laureate, Tabitha Fortis, in an episode of The West Wing. "An artist's job," she continues, "is to captivate you for however long we've asked for your attention. If we stumble into the truth we got lucky."

One may think that's a pretty bold quote to start of a book review, and it may be, but this reviewer was certainly captivated by Jessica James' Shades of Gray: A Novel of the Civil War in Virginia.

With her use of two diametrically opposed perspective points, Ms. James has successfully drawn the historical fiction and romance genres together and created a multi-dimensional picture. She begins with broad strokes of her pencil and sketches the outlines of two characters. The first, Andrea Evans, clothed as a boy known as Andrew Sinclair, is a scout and spy for the Union Army. The second, Captain Alex Hunter, the dashing and noble Confederate Cavalry officer who would like nothing more than to capture and kill his nemesis, Sinclair.

A novelist must ask his or her readers to suspend their disbelief and accept the world as the author has presented it to them. In the first few chapters of "Shades of Gray" I found it hard to suspend my disbelief; the plot twists and machinations which draw Ms. James' two characters together seem a bit contrived and forced. But, once Andrea finds herself confined to Captain Hunter's home the artist's rapid strokes of her pencil revealed to me all that came before was mere background to a much more intimate picture she was trying to draw.

Next Ms. James slowly begins the delicate job of drawing sharper lines and defining her characters through their conflict. Both believe strongly in the cause for which each is fighting, both have very strong opinions about the opposing sides and often the two characters seem to be at war with one another.

With an artist's touch she begins to smudge and gently soften the harsher outlines of her subjects. As affection grows between the Union spy and her dashing Confederate cavalryman, Jessica James' transforms her characters with small strokes of her pencil, intricately drawing in detail, shading darker here and or lighter there.

The reality of the outside world cannot be held back in a country torn apart by civil war, and the divided loyalties of Ms. James' carefully crafted subjects threatens to tear them apart. With an artist's gift she draws her audience into making assumptions about her subjects, and demands them to look closer at the picture. With a guiding hand, Ms. James allows her readers to discover that the picture they thought they were seeing isn't really the picture she has drawn at all.

In Shades of Gray, Jessica James' skills as an artist are unquestioned. She as drawn a picture filled with conflict and love, loyalty and betrayal, history and romance, and a passion of lives lived in the moment. And along the way I think she may have also stumbled into truth.

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