The Sweet Hell Inside

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In his first book, Slaves in the Family (1998), Edward Ball told the story of his own family's history of slave ownership and of his search for the descendants of his family's slaves. In this new book, Ball turns his attention to some of his distant cousins. The Harleston family began with a relationship between South Carolina slave owner William Harleston and one of his slaves, Kate Wilson. The tie between the two continued after slavery ended with the defeat of the South in the Civil War and Kate's eight mixed race children became part of Charleston's circle of light-skinned African American families.

Ball concentrates on one branch of the Harlestons, the family of Kate's fifth child, Edwin G. Harleston. Known as Captain Harleston because he owned and operated a cargo boat for a time, Edwin learned the funeral business from his sister's husband, Edward Mickey. This business maintained the Harleston family in middle class comfort, but it could not protect them from the pains of intensifying racial segregation and legal discrimination.

Following the history through the life of Mrs. Edwina Harleston Whitlock, who provided many of the reminiscences and family records, Ball manages to show how the family's past was intertwined with many of the important events of African American history. One of Captain Harleston's daughters married the influential Reverend Daniel Jenkins, who ran an orphanage with a band that produced some of the key figures in American jazz. Captain Harleston's son, Edwin A. Harleston, struggled as an artist and maintained ties with W.E.B. Dubois and with members of the Harlem Renaissance.

Ball has managed to create an intriguing account of the complicated social and sexual ties between black and white Americans, of the wounds inflicted by racial discrimination, and of the changes in American society over the course of a century and a half.