The Amalgamation Polka
With The Amalgamation Polka, Stephen Wright has transformed the historical novel genre into an experimental, postmodern art form. Taking risks throughout the book, Wright creates Liberty Fish’s family, who have been torn apart by slavery and the “slavocracy.” His mother, Roxana, comes from violent and cruel Southern cotton plantation owners. His father, Thatcher, comes from Northern textile merchants who, while not slave owners themselves, profited from the slave labor of the South. Liberty’s parents rebelled against their parents and the way of life that provided them a comfortable existence to ensure that their son know only a life of freedom for all. Yet it is his parents’ beliefs about freedom and equality, a divisive ideology he is too young to understand, that cause Liberty to be ridiculed and shunned by his peers and adults.
In a postmodern fashion, Wright jumps from era to era and character to character within Liberty’s young life, creating a nonlinear format that grants the author artistic freedom and the reader an enjoyable and cerebral experience. Filled with minor yet memorable cameos, the novel constantly changes location and dialect as new characters introduce diverse settings and colloquialisms. In that regard, Wright has written a novel not simply about the Civil War but also about America and the characters and cultures that make up its madness on the whole.
The first section of the book begins with Liberty’s birth in the fall of 1844, where it is established that the Fishes are liberal Northern abolitionists who lecture on the evils of slavery and help runaway slaves make their escape by allowing their house to serve as a stop on the Underground Railroad. As a result, Liberty’s childhood is filled with unexplained guests who disappear as quickly and silently as they arrived. The reader experiences Liberty’s upbringing through a series of chapters, each a self-contained short story of an adventure and life-changing moment for Liberty. His experiences include being stoned by boys whose parents support slavery, being taught by the eccentric Ma’am L’Orange, and becoming a pirate who roams secret passageways with the hermit Arthur Fife.
Wright continues his carnival of characters and locations as Liberty and his father board Captain Erastus Whelkinton’s The Croesus for a trip through the Erie Canal toward Niagara Falls. The journey turns into a sort of rite of passage as Liberty experiences such oddities as witnessing Dr. Fitzgibbon’s sideshow tooth extractions, which may be viewed for fifty cents, and Colonel Foggbottom peddling his miracle tonic; catching illegal and unwelcome glances at women’s undergarments; and, at his father’s prodding, pretending to be deaf and mute in front of the proper Thornes. The trip also offers heated and hate- filled conversations by antiabolitionists and some dangerously close calls as he and Thatcher express their opinions against slavery.
It is upon his return home that Liberty is personally struck by the emotional impact of slavery. He spies his mother reading a letter that emotionally debilitates her. His father explains that the letter is a hate-filled message from her plantation home, and he shares Roxana’s background with Liberty. Once he realizes where she came from and how upsetting her past is to her, Liberty takes it upon himself to protect his mother and hides every letter that is ever received from Redemption Plantation.
The novel advances to Liberty’s late teen years and the raging Civil War. Despite protests from their families, Liberty and his childhood friend Phineas Fowler join the army at age sixteen and go off to war. As Liberty leaves his home, his motherwhom, unbeknownst to him, he is seeing for the last timebegs him not to “play the hero for anyone. There will be more than enough fools scrambling for...
(The entire section is 1586 words.)