A Georgia Southern University professor has just had his third historical novel published.
Clarion Books has published "Cy in Chains," a book about the continued mistreatment of African-Americans in the post-Civil War South, by David L. Dudley, a professor of English and the chairman of the university's Department of Literature and Philosophy.
"‘Cy in Chains' was inspired by something that I read in ‘The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow,' which was a companion book for an old PBS series. There is a chapter about the prison experience of African-Americans after the Civil War," he said. "Slavery had been replaced by sharecropping, economically, but the use of black men, women and children in chain gang or lease labor was actually another kind of slavery."
Dudley's protagonist began to form after reading a passage in the Jim Crow book that tells of a young black boy, about 12 years old, who was sentenced to "something like 30 years on a chain gang for stealing a horse he was too small to ride," Dudley said. "[The book] also tells of children sentenced to a year or two years for petty crimes like stealing change off a counter in a store."
A man could run a chain gang and rent the labor of the people in the gang. It was a money-making proposition, and children and grown-ups were picked up on the flimsiest of charges. Even a few years on a chain gang could be a death sentence.
"I didn't realize that much of the rebuilding of the infrastructure of the South after the Civil War was done by prison labor - roads, bridges - and the newly forming coal industry in Alabama, most of that coal mining was done by prison and chain-gang labor," Dudley said.
In the book, 13-year-old Cy Williams is sentenced to a chain gang, run by a man named Cain, who keeps threatening to ship the boys off to the coal mines in Alabama.
"The estimates are that between 20,000 and 30,000 black children were involved in this prison camp labor at one time or another," Dudley said. "I've used that as the plot, put a 13-year-old boy in prison camp labor, with the theme of the novel being, ‘What will a person dare to do to get free?' It becomes clear through the course of the book that, with the physical brutality, starvation-level food, sickness (whooping cough goes through the camp in one of the chapters), physical, mental and emotional abuse, [if Cy] and the other boys don't do something to try and get free, they'll die."
A person with nothing to lose is a dangerous person, Dudley said, and Cy and his friends rapidly come to the point where they have nothing to lose — and only their freedom to gain — if they make a break for it. They have an elaborate plot that has little chance of success.
"It appears to me that the way my career as a novelist has developed is that historical novels about African-Americans set in the Southeast is my niche," Dudley said. "I have three novels now to show for it."
"Cy in Chains" is chronologically the earliest, set in the 1890s. Dudley's first novel, "The Bicycle Man," is set in the 1920s and was published in 2005, and his second, "Caleb's Wars," is set in 1944 and was published in 2010.
"The Bicycle Man" won the 2006 New Authors' Award from the International Reading Association for a middle-grades book.
At Georgia Southern, Dudley teaches African-American, world and American literature, as well as the Bible as literature.
He and his wife, Eileen, live in Twin City.
"I have a huge ambition to follow in the footsteps of the black playwright August Wilson, who set out to write a play for each decade of the 20th century," Dudley said. "I think he unfortunately died before he could complete all 10 plays."
Dudley is currently working on his next book, tentatively titled "Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around," which will be set in Selma, Ala., in 1965 around the famous Freedom Marches. He also is planning another book set in southeast Georgia in the 1960s, dealing with integration of the public schools.
"I haven't made a fortune on my books, but I'm proud of what I do because I think I'm telling stories of our own history and past that need to be told," Dudley said.