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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #19 (May 10, 2005), page 15.

Cousins of Color looks at Philippine campaign in Spanish-American war

Cousins of Color

By William Schroder

Twenty First Century Publishers Ltd., 2004

Paperback, 286 pages, $12.95

By Oscar Johnson

The author of this work of historical fiction writes in his preface that, unlike other U.S. war exploits, so often romanticized for better or worse in print or on screen, "No one knows anything about the Spanish-American War." Itís an oversight that William Schroder applied extensive research as well as creativity to set right.

Cousins of Color is a well-written, no-frills story that at times feels abbreviated but not lacking in substance. Historical figures such as the cruel Captain Baston, ambitious Colonel Fredrick Funston, and Filipino revolutionary leader Emilio Aguinaldo star in this novel alongside equally central characters from the authorís own imagination.

The novel weaves a plausible yarn about what impact the Philippine campaign might have had on the men of the all-black 24th Infantry dispatched there. Its protagonist is the black, educated son of a Georgia sharecropper, out to prove the worth of his race via the U.S. Army and Americaís first imperialist venture overseas.

Of course, Schroderís creativity has to flesh out much of what befell the men of the 24th, to say nothing of how they saw events. It is in fleshing out the closeted skeleton of Pfc. David Fagan, however, who really did switch sides to lead Filipino freedom fighters against the U.S. Army, that creativity and research merge to tell truths ó no matter how fabricated the details.

It isnít long before Faganís aspirations to prove the black manís worth to Uncle Sam are tested. Itís not only his benevolent uncle he fights for, but Jim Crow as well. This is not lost on the de facto enemy.

A war to "liberate" the Philippines from Spain is manifested in a series of ruthless campaigns to suppress Filipino insurgents equally disinterested in a U.S. protectorate. Sterile terms such as "collateral damage" are unnecessary in a time and place where the lives of "gooks" are of no more value than those of "coons."

Herein lies Schroderís real talent: his vivid portrayal of racismís exploits. The picture he paints is not just one in which grotesque characters condemn, torture, and conquer solely out of racial hatred (though he offers ample examples). Instead, he portrays a landscape in which nonchalant matter-of-fact racism, born from an Anglo sense of superiority as deep as it was false, informs late 19th-century and early 20th-century America ó be it the soldier on the battlefield or crafters of foreign policy in the White House.

From this rises our hero, neither rebel nor conformist. It is not so much his quiet questioning of a warped status quo that sparks his desertion as it is circumstances beyond his control. As much a hero by choice as turncoat, Fagan is driven most of all by his longing to make some sense of the injustice and suffering he grew accustomed to long before joining the army. In the end, the question haunts protagonist and reader alike.

That Schroder draws from time to time on his own experience in the Viet Nam War is evident in minute details: the squirting black blood of a combat wound, a jungle that is oppressive to foreign fighters and a safe haven to their indigenous counterparts, even guerrilla propaganda calling on black soldiers to consider for what they fight. It blends well to round out his tale.

Cousins of Color is a page-turner that sometimes leaves the reader wanting after learning what comes next. Some abrupt shifts between chapters and hard-to-ignore gaps in time may make readers wish they had read the manuscript before editors and publishers began snipping. They are not likely to be disappointed, however, with the finished product.

If the bookís purpose is to give us an inkling of ó or further prompt us to delve into ó "the war that no one knows anything about," it serves its purpose admirably.

 

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