The Gambler's Nephew by Jack Matthews (A Review by David Atkinson)

Etruscan Press


Perhaps I am just prejudiced against historical novels, but to me there seems to be a distinction between historical novels and novels that are set in a historical place and time.  In the way I draw the line between these two types of books, I see historical novels as more a love affair with the image of a particular place or time.  As a reader, I get the impression that the author of a historical novel paints a pretty picture and then tells the reader to sit back and appreciate it for a while.  Any characters or story seem to be a secondary consideration, something to prop up the pretty picture rather than elements of serious concern.

The historically set novel on the other hand, again as I personally draw the distinction, seems to rest the primary focus on the characters and the story.  The historical place or time is still a vitally important element, but something is going on as opposed to a vicariously experienced zeitgeist.

Having blathered more than enough now about how I would categorize different books, I would certainly classify The Gambler’s Nephew as a novel that is historically set.  The central importance here is the story of a particular community of characters, not shallow appreciation of a different time or place.  Certainly, the story takes place in a vividly and accurately created civil-war era rural community in Ohio.  Further, the story is heavily tied to slavery, abolitionism, and the prevalent attitudes of the time regarding such.  However, this setting is subservient to the story as opposed to the other way around.  This is evident from the very first lines of the book:

“Years ago, way back in the 1850s, there was a wealthy merchant in the little Ohio River town of Brackenport by name of Nehemiah Dawes who got to brooding over slavery and grave robbing so much that his mind became unbalanced.  Hardly any of the townsfolk understood these passions of his, not so much because of what he believed as how hard he worked at it.  Even those who sympathized with his views and agreed with him that the abolition of slavery was all right and grave robbing was all wrong; even those people figured there had to be a limit to how much you should let such principles interfere with your peace of mind.  Not to mention that of your neighbors.”

In addition to demonstrating the serious focus to story and character to which The Gambler’s Nephew adheres, the above opening paragraph also showcases another aspect of this book that interested me, and in fact interested me most of all in the book.  I am referring to the way that the thoughts of characters are presented with a distance and a selection that reveals the inner foibles and failings of which the characters themselves are unaware.

Now, The Gambler’s Nephew is presented by a central narrative voice.  However, that central narrative voice shares certain insights into the mental workings of the characters of the community and those insights, though voiced in the words of the characters, elucidate aspects of the characters of which they themselves are not completely aware.

For example, the narrator notes that the brothers of Nehemiah’s deceased wife become incensed because:

“Nehemiah had buried their sister in one of the worst spots in the entire graveyard, humiliating the Kittles.  There her grave was, a disgrace for everybody to gaze upon, scarcely ten feet above the flood line.  Maybe eight.  But for himself, Nehemiah had bought the loftiest and most expensive plot of all, high above the river where the gravestone could look down with scorn upon the steamboats that plied and labored their way up and down the channel in their pursuit of plenty as decreed by the god of commerce.”

However, as straightforward as these sentiments might seem, the brothers had voiced no objection when their sister was buried.  They had not even voiced an objection when Nehemiah buried a slave in this prized spot, out of guilt relating to having caused the slave’s death, instead of himself.

To the contrary, after these events have taken place, the narrator remarks that:

“Jacob and Henry Kittle verged upon being two of the town’s respectable citizens, in spite of the fact that neither of them belonged to a church.  They certainly didn’t belong to the ruffian class, and it was widely held that they showed no disposition in that direction – at least until recently, when Jacob got it into his head to start brooding over the insult to their poor sister’s corpse.”

Though the above quotes let readers into the mind of the brothers, they show the reader things about the brothers that they themselves are not aware.  If they were truly defending their slighted sister, why did they wait so long to become enraged?  In an offhand, almost comic kind of way, the narrator lets the reader in on the secret that these brothers have much more of a problem with Nehemiah himself and merely delude themselves about being angry over family honor.

This indirect manner of revelation about the characters making up this community pervades the book, providing delightful secretive discovery after another for the reader.  For me, this is one of the most magical aspects of what Matthews has accomplished in this work.  After all, many readers have read about the sorts of events that occurred in rural communities at near the end of slavery in America.  However, those readers have not experienced the hidden essential human hearts of characters in such a community.  For that, readers can enjoy The Gambler’s Nephew.


David S. Atkinson is a Nebraska-born writer currently living in Denver.  He holds an MFA from the University of Nebraska.  His stories have appeared in (and/or are soon to be appearing in) “Gray Sparrow,” “Children Churches and Daddies,” “Split Quarterly,” “Cannoli Pie,” “C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag,” “Atticus Review,” “Brave Blue Mice,” and “Fine Lines.”  His book reviews have appeared in “Gently Read Literature,” “The Rumpus,” and “All Things Pankish.”  The web site dedicated to his writing can be found at  He currently serves as a reader for “Gray Sparrow” and in his non-literary time he works as a patent attorney in Denver.