Tainted Harvest (Simone Doucet Series Book 1)

“Ghosts Must Tell Their Stories”

Review by Joey Madia

If I’ve learned anything in my 11 years as a paranormal investigator, it is that a high percentage of hauntings are the result of a ghost—a sentient being with emotions, moods, and wants—who needs to tell their story. The reasons vary… unresolved issues, revealing a secret, acknowledgment, and the seeking of justice are the major motivations, with the last being the subject of this review.

Tainted Harvest is a ghost story in the grand tradition. It takes as its time and place (in addition to the present) the Deep South during the U.S. Civil War. Cities in the South (Savannah, Charleston, Harper’s Ferry) owe their atmosphere and personality to the aftermath of the war and the stain of slavery. Their navigation of the history of slavery and Jim Crow alongside the tourism industry has been the subject of countless academic studies. The ghosts of slaves and the oppressed are everywhere. In the North, Civil War–era hauntings tend to be contained to battlefields and nearby. Gettysburg comes to mind.

This is not to say that the North does not have its own secrets and stains when it comes to the Civil War. It does. Aplenty. Colored Troops, as Black soldiers were called, were met with dismal treatment by many townsfolk and by White soldiers and officers (the highest rank a Black man could attain was sergeant, and they were few and far between). The film Glory gives one a general sense of the conditions these men faced—lower pay, substandard uniforms and equipment, and the South proclaimed that the Confederate Army would return captured Black soldiers to slavery and White officers would be executed. Less talked about are the riots in cities like Boston when the Colored Troops were formed and how they had to be shipped out secretly on trains to avoid violence.

Out of this historical backdrop comes the bones of the Tainted Harvest story. It opens with a quote and a dedication. The quote is from W. E. B. Du Bois, giving the book immediate gravitas. If you want readers to pay attention to your story about the plight of Blacks in America, quote Du Bois. The dedication reads:

“For those whose story was never told.”

The narrative opens in the present, in Brooklyn Heights, New York. It is told in third person present (not all readers are comfortable with this, so I had to mention it early on). The central character, Simone, is a travel writer who shares a brownstone with three other people who travel for work. On one level, these are the first “ghosts” we encounter. As she arrives home to an empty space, exhausted from a recent assignment in Paris, she receives an email asking her to go to Natchez, Mississippi within a few days to cover a bed and breakfast for Happy Brides Magazine. Although this is against her protocol (she typically waits a few weeks between travel) she accepts, the assignment triggering memories of the recent death of her mother by heart attack and her hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

It’s at this point that the story becomes a ghost story, beginning with the smell of peaches, followed by a vision and introduction of a poem that is lengthened and contextualized as the narrative unfolds. The poem first contains just a single line: Below the bluffs of Natchez Trace, the Devil’s Eden lies in waste.

As Simone arrives in Natchez, Billup pens details that sound very much like Savannah and other well-known Southern towns: antebellum mansions, magnolia trees, oaks and Spanish moss, angel effigies in cemeteries, and haunted ghost tours. Think an Anne Rice novel set in New Orleans or Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Amid the opulence and tourism, there is also poverty—a reminder of the deep racism that exists all over America.

Settling in at the B & B, Simone has another vision—this one engaging all of her senses, the peach again the central symbol in an increasingly detailed dream sequence. Now another layer is added, with a mystery to solve, involving Simone’s deceased mother, a long-time family friend at the Museum of African History, the owner of the B and B, and a new central character—the source of the vision.

The ghost whose story Simone must tell.

By this time, the poem has grown to 12 lines, ending with:

Deeply seeded,
Root-to-leaf fodder,
For the Devil’s harvest,
Below the bluffs of Natchez Trace.

Having taken up the mantel to solve the mystery, Simone employs her journalism skills to delve into the history of Natchez. Now that the narrative has been carried by third parties, tainted and diluted—horrific as it is—by time and multiple tellings, the spectre herself, Delphine, appears:

Mud drips from her hair revealing reddish-brown strands, coiling her girlish face. Her breasts and lifeless belly swell with milk and a phantom child. Her agape mouth spills silt loam snaking around her slender throat, sliding beneath her collarbone, a cascading ribbon entwined with breast milk, white and black, burying Simone shoulder to feet.

Then it’s 1863, and Delphine tells her tale.

Billups’s writing shines as she takes us back in time, with the dialect, atmosphere, and descriptions of life during the Civil War in the South in all its slavery-related horrors. Somewhere between what we know of Thomas Jefferson and Sally and the more extreme tropes of the slaveowner/“massa” with his abject cruelty and free reign over the female slaves is Henry Randolph, whose barren and equally cruel wife Lorelei adds an even more abhorrent twist to this tale.

Circumstances force Delphine to make life–death choices as her situation quickly deteriorates. We have all heard the stories of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad as slaves tried desperately to escape the plantation for a new and better life in the U.S. North or in Canada. This is a different type of tale—one that illuminates the prejudices and harsh hands of the Union soldiers when they encountered runaway slaves. This story within a story is also one needing to be told. Again, the film Glory touches on it a bit, but this is a true “out of the frying pan and into the fire” situation, as hard as it might be for a reader to believe.

As the narrative returns to Simone—the spell broken as dusk dissipates—we now carry the burden right along with them. It is our story now as well, having heard it told so honestly. Simone is not just custodian of the story however—realizations and revelations in the third act set her mission before her in new terms, with career decisions and life priorities shifting considerably. This is the power of story.

Finally—and I speak from over a decade of experience here—when you communicate with the Other Side, there are those who are listening whom you never could have imagined.

TITLE: Tainted Harvest (Simone Doucet Series Book 1)
AUTHOR: E. Denise Billups