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11.04.14 Yerby, Frank, Captain Rebel, published in 1956, and other Yerby Historical Novels (1946-1985).

Notes Concerning the Author

The life-story of African American author, Frank Yerby (1916-1991), is almost as interesting as his book. He was born in Augusta, Georgia and described as being Mulatto. He went to Paine College for undergraduate studies,  obtained a Masters at Fisk in 1939, then went  to the Univ. of Chicago for doctoral work. He taught at Florida A&M and Southern Univ. in Baton Rouge. Yerby published “The Foxes of Harrow” in 1946, which became the first million-seller novel by a black author, and which was made into an Oscar nominated movie in 1947. He is best known for the Southern Romance genre and historical fiction, which he carefully researched. Criticized by more militant Afro-Americans for his realistic but not laudatory depiction of antebellum Blacks, he nevertheless tried to portray his characters in ways different from the previous Gone With The Wind stereotypes. He moved to Spain in 1956 to avoid racial prejudice in the US.  At the end of this review you will find a listing of Yerby’s books.  They are provided for information, and the Society is not necessarily endorsing all.  But it is helpful to understand how prolific was Yerby, the first African American author to make over one million dollars practicing his writing craft.

Our Review

Captain Rebel  is a fictional account of the adventures of a New Orleans blockade runner, very much in the tradition of Gone With The Wind. The eponymous protagonist, aka Tyler Meredith, would put Captain Butler to shame, however. He is excruciatingly noble amid everything New Orleans has to offer. He’s ‘agin slavery, and ‘agin secession, too. He champions insulted mulattoes, and honors marital sanctity, despite temptations. The action moves apace between New Orleans and environs, the high seas, and a few other venues such as Fort Fisher and Richmond. Throughout, Meredith seems to pull through every fight and peril when others perish by violence and even disease. It’s all a bit much, but if you just accept it as a pot-boiling swashbuckler of a tale, its not bad. Southern culture could use some good legends. Cpt. Meredith’s adventures would make a great movie. Actually it’s really part “Jezebel”, part “GWTW”, with a dash of “Hornblower”.

Tyler Meredith is a lean young man, almost six-foot. He is hot-blooded, with laughing brown eyes. We meet him newly returned from Annapolis in disgrace for conduct unbecoming – involving the daughter of a of a gunnery instructor. It’s the eve of Secession, and the city is astir, but he just wants to settle where his vittles, bourbon, and cigars are going to come from. His father is resigned to his ways, but his brother, Joseph, an Episcopal priest, tries in vain to appeal to his conscience. Not even the recent marriage of his former sweetheart, Sue Forrester, to his friend Drake seems to faze him, although it sets up frustrations all around. The situation seems to please her younger sister, Ruth, though; who sets her cap for Tyler, now that she’s an eligible twenty years old. The interplay of these folks and a few appendent characters form the central cast.

Meredith makes a speech at a rally, warning, in very Rhett-Bulteresque terms, of the dangers of Secession. His personal plans revolve around personal gain, though- he plans to play both sides and persevere, to pick up the pieces, “nice pieces – even like Sue. Never met a woman who wasn’t for sale when the going got rough.” This philosophy seems to be the mainstay of the plot for the rest of the story. Once the set-up is made, the War grinds out to the inevitable conclusions.

Meredith manages to secure a series of blockade runners thanks to English cousins. Each ship is more fantastically swift and stealthy than the last, each crew more stalwart and true. His risks are rewarded in hard gold currency, and he gains great wealth. Harrowing races with the US Navy and the loss of friends begins to sober him. Caught by Beast Butler in the city, he manages to wiggle out. A contretemps between a half-caste plantation owner, an outcast from society, and his slaves, sets up a responsibility for Tyler to the daughter, Lauriel.

Meanwhile vignettes are interspersed of the worsening War, including Joe’s increasing disillusionment at the fronts. Circumstances culminate in Susan’s travel to Wilmington, where she meets Tyler who has barely made it though, and on to Richmond to try to nurse her already-lost husband, where the tuberculosis foreshadowed by previous coughing spells, overtakes her. The South, and New Orleans, just collapse, of course, but a crushed Meredith mans up in the aftermath to pay for an integrated school and make amends for his much earlier careless injury to a black man. There’s an ambiguous ending with hope for both Ruth and Lauriel with now ex-Captain Rebel.

The technical side of blockade running is light, as is any explicit bodice-ripping. For the 1950’s this book was probably pretty exciting, but we are now only too used to the likes of meticulous Clive Cussler and steamy Lisa Klepas when it comes to ships and romance. The novel is apologist for the Southern cause, but realistic, if not fatalistic, too. The tone is disapproving of slavery and pretension, and other social vices, while acknowledging human flaws as part of the fabric of life. That Tyler seems to come out of every trial ahead, and all his adversaries, male and female, seem to lose repeatedly, is the price to pay for a picaresque novel. Hero Odysseus just can’t be seen to lose.

Availability of this Book

Readily available on Amazon at minimal cost.

Total list of Novels by Frank Yerby

  • The Foxes of Harrow (1946)
  • The Vixens (1947)
  • The Golden Hawk (1948)
  • Pride’s Castle (1949)
  • Floodtide (1950)
  • A Woman Called Fancy (1951)
  • The Saracen Blade (1952)
  • The Devil’s Laughter (1953)
  • Bride of Liberty (1954)
  • Benton’s Row (1954)
  • The Treasure of Pleasant Valley (1955)
  • Captain Rebel (1956)
  • Fair Oaks (1957)
  • The Serpent and the Staff (1958, with jacket by George Adamson)
  • Jarrett’s Jade (1959)
  • Gillian (1960)
  • The Garfield Honor (1961)
  • Griffin’s Way (1962)
  • The Old Gods Laugh (1964)
  • An Odor of Sanctity (1965)
  • Goat Song (1967)
  • Judas, My Brother (1968)
  • Speak Now (1969)
  • The Dahomean (1971, later published as The Man from Dahomey)
  • The Girl From Storeyville (1972)
  • The Voyage Unplanned (1974)
  • Tobias and the Angel (1975)
  • A Rose for Ana Maria (1976)
  • Hail the Conquering Hero (1977)
  • A Darkness at Ingraham’s Crest (1979)
  • Western: A Saga of the Great Plains (1982)
  • Devilseed (1984)
  • McKenzie’s Hundred (1985)

Film Adaptations of Yerby Novels