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The Amalgamation Polka    by Stephen Wright Amazon.com order for
Amalgamation Polka
by Stephen Wright
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Tim Davis

Liberty is destined to become quite remarkable. Born in 1844 to Roxana and Thatcher Fish in upstate New York, Liberty learns early that life for him will be filled with difficulties and ordeals. The son of abolitionist parents and the grandson of Carolina slaveholders, Liberty learns also from his family the important lesson that life and its challenges are particularly difficult for African-American slaves.

Early in the 1860s, a friend of the family tells Liberty: 'It's a disjointed world, Liberty. No snug fit to the parts anymore. We are tumbling and tumbling into a great abyss, I fear, one with no bottom.' The great abyss, of course, as Liberty is about to discover, is the American civil war that will challenge his (and the nation's) beliefs, attitudes, and courage.

Soon after the news of Fort Sumter arrives, Liberty enlists in the Union army and begins a harrowing odyssey of discovery and deliverance. Just as his abolitionist parents Roxana and Thatcher had been guided in their beliefs and convictions by the Bible, and just as they were tested and tempered by America's unquenchable monsters - slavery and racial hatred - Liberty finds himself immediately challenged and forever changed, first by his ordeals in the war's killing fields, and ultimately by his special pilgrimage to 'the lair of the beast' where he is fully introduced to the horrors and incomprehensibility of slavery - his mother's childhood plantation home, Redemption Hall.

Although it seems in many ways to be a traditional coming-of-age novel through which we see the ways in which Liberty Fish moves beyond life as a na´ve youth to an empowered, responsible, and forever altered adult, The Amalgamation Polka is much more. Stephen Wright's novel is also an epic tale of mid-19th century America - a nation rife with guilt, anxiety, oppression, and shame - as it was tested in the crucible of a ghastly civil war, and as it convulsively attempted to purge itself of the sins of slavery.

There is also something sublimely intricate about Wright's plotting, characterization, and diction that invite comparisons with works by William Faulkner, Thomas Pynchon, and even James Joyce; however, Wright's complex narrative style, his powerful themes, and his remarkably imaginative recreation of America's terrible past - a past we ought to read as metaphor for the present and future - are unique and special.

The Amalgamation Polka is an important novel that demands careful reading. Then read it again (and again) to discover all that you missed the first time.

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