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April 12, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
As a fifth generation native of the eastern Missouri Ozarks, Columbian Steve Wiegenstein knew exactly what the setting of his novel would be.
Slant of Light is a work of historical fiction centered on a utopian settlement during the Civil War. Wiegenstein uses his upbringing and his knowledge of Missouri’s history and landscape as inspiration to create a realistic story.
“It’s the part of the world that I know the best and feel the most attachment to,” Wiegenstein says. “It’s where I’m from and what I’m all about really.”
When writing about something so tied to his personal life, it’s hard not to add a little of himself into the work. Wiegenstein identifies himself with all the characters in some way — their idealism, optimism and stubbornness. He feels his father and grandfather are also represented in the novel as George Webb, a sharp character who is very in tune with the world.
Although the novel is fictional, some of its historical aspects are true. In the beginning of the novel, James Turner, the main character, is on his way to start up his settlement when he meets Sam Hildebrand, an actual notorious guerrilla from the Civil War. Wiegenstein calls Hildebrand the boogeyman of his childhood.
“My brothers would say ‘Sam Hildebrand is going to get you!’” Wiegenstein says.
Of the dozens of people killed by Hildebrand during the war, one of them was Wiegenstein’s ancestor.
“After the war was over, he had an autobiography written, and he recaps the killing of my great-great-uncle,” Wiegenstein says.
That childhood fear is reflected in the novel when Hildebrand threatens another character with a pistol.
Aside from drawing inspiration from his upbringing, Wiegenstein uses his scholarly work of the period to add historical detail. He studied a Civil War utopian society called Icaria. Wiegenstein is impressed by the persistence of the group’s ideals and how they hung onto their beliefs in the face of adversary and strife, which is one of the main themes of Slant of Light.
Another theme of the book comes from “man is a wolf to man,” a motif in the novel representing the belief that people must look out for themselves and only the strongest will survive. In contrast, the transcendentalist dreamers in the book believe that humanity is in a constant state of betterment. Wiegenstein believes these reveal the two realms of humanity.
“I’ll leave it to the readers to decide which side they want to stand on,” he says.
One part of the book is the Battle of the Red River, which occurred toward the end of the Civil War. Wiegenstein was careful to make sure every detail of geography is accurate, despite the fictional plot.
“I tried to capture the atmosphere of what it would be like to live in Missouri during the war,” Wiegenstein says. “I’m hoping that Missourians will find it interesting.”
This first-in-a-series novel takes place during the Civil War, but the story doesn’t end there. Wiegenstein has bigger plans to continue the series. It will maintain the same location, but each book will focus on a different time period to show changes through the passage of time.