‘Big Daddy’ grew with Reconstruction

Koehler Books

By Leslie Doran
Special to the Herald

The Bequest of Big Daddy by Colorado transplant Jo-Ann Costa is a debut story that features the fictional life of Horatio (Ratio) Janson, a not-too-pleasant, larger-than-life character from the Civil War era of the deep South.

Drawing from stories told by her Alabama relatives, Costa weaves an epic tale of slavery, poverty, fortunes won and lost and the creation of a family dynasty.

Costa opens with 8-year-old Jo-Dee’s bedside visit to her great grandfather, Big Daddy, shortly before his death in 1953. Known for his ill humor, Jo-Dee was not disappointed by Big Daddy’s behavior during the visit. There was something about the man’s vivid blue eyes and sharp tongue that peaked the young girl’s interest and created a drive to know her patriarch’s history.

Big Daddy was born in 1862 to the beautiful Mina Satterley and Clay Man Janson on the family plantation in Georgia. After Ratio’s father went off to war as a Confederate soldier, the boy and his mother were sent to rural Alabama and its relative safety from the approaching Yankee tide. Because Clay Man seemed to have disappeared, Mina looked for a way to maintain her style of living and took up with a married man who was a former senator. Ratio took to wandering off, and after a particularly bad experience, Mina enlisted the help of the senator to control the boy.

Ratio was put to work at the senator’s sawmill to learn the trade. Unfortunately, when Ratio was a teenager, he was caught with the senator’s “feeble-minded” daughter Fiona, and the senator beat him and imprisoned him with convict slaves who worked on the plantation. After a bold escape with Bent, a former slave, Ratio made his way to Tennessee to escape capture. The pair worked their way up the career ladder and eventually made their way back to Alabama, where Ratio’s business acumen brought him success.

Ratio was a ladies’ man, but when he met Eugenie Raines, he married and fathered eight children. This fact did not stop him from meeting with other women, and eventually he was caught by a jealous husband. After the confrontation, Ratio killed the husband. This was only one example of his horrible temper, which led to a trial and years in prison. Eventually Ratio was set free. He returned home to find that his wife had died and he had all those children to raise alone. He hired a young woman to help with the children, and they had an affair that resulted in more children. These youngsters were referred to as “yard” children, and Ratio added to his progeny with even more women through the years.

As the times changed and another war started, Ratio continued to find ways to build his financial empire. He rented houses, sold cars and developed other ways to make money, legally and otherwise. Ratio was called to his mother’s death bed and learned of a shocking family secret. Eventually, the hard living caught up with Ratio, and, at the ripe age of 91, he died, only four days after Jo-Dee and her father came to visit.

One positive thing Ratio did in his life was to establish a family reunion every Fourth of July. He even bought land and built a pavilion to host the function. When all the children married and had kids of their own, the event swelled to include almost 200 kinfolk. This was his best and lasting legacy.

The Bequest of Big Daddy is rich in history and colorful characters. Costa is a skilled storyteller who draws the reader into the Southern world. This is the first novel in a trilogy that spans decades and the lives of a large Southern family. Costa’s characters are fascinating and complex, if not always nice or law abiding. The historical facts ring true and shed light on a difficult time in America’s past, especially covering the treatment of slaves on plantations. This is a fascinating story sure to leave readers looking forward to Book 2 in the series.

sierrapoco@yahoo.com. Leslie Doran is a Durango freelance reviewer.

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