THE BREASTPLATE by Shirley McCracken is a novel of the pre-Civil War days that actually begins in the present day Tennessee and via flashback picks up in the Gold Rush Days of the late 1840s and continues until the end of the Civil War. This book is actually two divergent tales: the first half tells of the life of John Henry Claiborne who, in true Bildungsroman fashion we meet as a lad alone in the world. McCracken describes him as the noble type that we like to think represented our pioneer ancestors. He starts out with nothing and like Horation Alger, winds up with a great deal of something. Claiborne meets and falls in love with Kathleen also an apotheosis of glorious American womanhood. Yet, both John and Kathleen are far more than mere stereotypes. Each is tested in the brutal way that America did to those who were not satisfied with the economic and social status quo. In them, their success becomes vicariously our success too. They marry and have a daughter Kitty, and it is Kitty who becomes the dramatic focus of the second half of THE BREASTPLATE.
When an author uses an object as the book title, one can assume that in the course of the novel it accrues a totemic significance. The breastplate on a physical level is a decoration, one that signifies family honor and pride, but on a deeper metaphysical level acts as the thematic bridge between the Tennessee of the Civil War years and the Tennessee of today. It is almost as if it links the geneology of temporarily far distant families. There is a sense that this heirloom is a symbol that despite the passing of many decades, people are people and only their environments differ. The action that swirls around John, Kathleen, Kitty and the breastplate is a miniaturized version of American History 101. We read of real life people and events that ring true to those with even a smattering of knowledge of history. McCracken portrays a landscape that we well know of from other and similar books and movies. In more than one scene, I was reminded of vignettes from GONE WITH THE WIND both book and film. Finally, the majority of the characters acted in a manner that has relevance for today. Hard work, discipline, and basic street smarts are traits that will not go out of style. What emerges from a considered reading of THE BREASTPLATE is the rare opportunity to spend a few hours of delightful reading even as we pick up some sorely needed perspective about who we are and where we came from.