Philip Gerrard, Cape Fear Rising (Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 1994) 416 pp
Review By Art Menius
Original Publication in The Independent
Almost 60% of its 20,000 souls African-American, Wilmington in 1898 approached the end of many decades as the state’s largest city. High unemployment, especially among whites, suggested its problems as North Carolina’s economy shifted from cotton, naval stores, and shipping to tobacco, manufacturing, and banking. Heroes of The War faced unemployment, yet the integrated city featured a thriving, politically active, Republican black middle class. Ascendant statewide were the Republicans, having fused their fortunes with the disaffected former Democratic whites called the Populists. The Democrats launched their counter-revolution through the “White Supremacy Campaign” and recaptured the state house in the 1898 election. Shortly afterwards organized European-Americans burned the offices of Wilmington’s black newspaper and eventually attacked and killed African-Americans indiscriminately, while Democratic leaders overthrew the mostly white Republican city government, banishing many black and GOP leaders in the process.
This sad course of events provides the setting for Philip Gerrard’s historical novel, Cape Fear Rising. Among mostly historical characters, Gerrard inserts a fictional newspaperman and his wife, both new to the South, and a firebrand Mulatto minister, Ivanhoe Grant. Although employing all the fictive tools of the novelist, Gerrard’s meticulously researched account provides the best written narrative of the Wilmington massacre. He uses his novelist’s freedom to speculate about many of the why questions that have puzzled the few historians to consider these events deeply. With history dictating the plot, however, Cape Fear Rising fails to achieve the character-driven power of the best fiction. Several of the characters, particularly the African-Americans, seem shallow. For example Grant, seemingly motivated only by the murder of his grandfather by Wilmington whites 67 years before, shows up whenever needed to throw gasoline on the fire. Nonetheless, Cape Fear Rising provides compelling reading about a dark side of history too long swept under the carpet.