Storybook war

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On this day in 1863, elements of Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and elements of the Union Army of the Potomac, under the still new command of George Meade, clashed on the hills north of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. This meeting engagement would concentrate both armies into the hills and farmland around the town and, by its end on July 3, become the biggest, bloodiest battle fought in North America.

To commemorate the battle I’ve been reading Cain at Gettysburg, a 2012 novel by Ralph Peters and the first in a five-book series concluding with Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Peters tells the story from multiple points of view on both sides, from Lee and Meade and their subordinates to the sergeants and privates doing the fighting, and is particularly good at evoking the mixed emotions—the sudden and jarring confluences of excitement and horror, irritation and affection, exhilaration and pathos—that characterize battle. It’s excellent so far.

I wanted to point out this passage that I read last night. It’s narrated from the point of view of a German immigrant private, a utopian socialist and idealist who fled Europe for the United States after military defeat in the revolutions of 1848. Now serving in the 26th Wisconsin, as his regiment passes through Gettysburg on the way to the line on the first day of battle he sees a collection of Confederate prisoners. Peters writes:

For all his professed hatred of those who had forced war upon the country, Schwertlein empathized with the captive soldiers. He had never been a prisoner, but he knew only too well how men felt when they gave all they had, yet were condemned to failure. War was a sorrier business than storybooks told.
— Ralph Peters, Cain at Gettysburg

That last line is the stinger in the passage.

It also neatly expresses a large part of the trajectory of my own interests, studies, and writing. Like a lot of young boys, I became interested in military history through stories of heroes—brave men worth emulating. I still believe in those, and believe wholeheartedly in emulating the great departed (as I’ve written before, Lee is one of mine), but my studies have sobered me on war proper. I’ve learned that the glory of war is like the light of the moon—a reflection of something else, in this case the reflected glory of the handful of men who accomplish great things in those awful circumstances. Our admiration is itself a giveaway. Why else would heroism stand out if it weren’t against the odds and in spite of every conceivable misery—and the scads more modern man has spent all his energies creating?

I mention this because over the course of the holiday week we’ll get plenty of rah-rah, support-the-troops sentimentality without a lot of consideration of what it is we’re supporting or why they need support. (Or, if you really want to play with fire, whether we should.) The flagwaving, fireworks, Lee Greenwood, and beer commercials are fine, but absent a sense of the misery and tragedy of war—its barely fathomable sorriness—such commemoration will only give us storybook images. And, what is more, we won’t understand any side, even our own.

For my part, I’ve tried to convey a little of all this in my own Civil War novel, Griswoldville: what the war was like, how it wore men out and used them up, destroyed them body and soul, and just what it’s like to lose—something our success-obsessed culture can hardly conceive of, much less understand.

Cain at Gettysburg does it exceptionally well. Check it out.

Andersonville

The real Andersonville,  photographed  from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

The real Andersonville, photographed from the stockade wall in mid-August 1864.

This year I set myself a goal of reading fewer but longer books, and to get the year started I decided to tackle a monster: Mackinlay Kantor’s 750-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning Civil War novel Andersonville. It took me exactly a month.

I first heard of Kantor’s Andersonville in the early 90s, when TNT aired its own Andersonville mini-series. Reviewers in the Civil War magazines I read condemned the mini-series for grossly exaggerating deliberate Confederate brutality, and compared it—unfavorably—to Kantor’s book, which they implied did the same thing. Both accusations, as it happens, are correct—for reasons I’ll get into—but I spent the next twenty-five years assuming Kantor’s book was a straightforward Yankee screed. Only in the last few years, when I discovered that he was also the author of a children’s book on Gettysburg that I had loved as a kid, did I first become mildly curious about, then genuinely interested in, and finally decide to read Andersonville.

I’m glad I did. Andersonville is a good book, if perhaps not a great one, and poses interesting questions for readers and writers of historical fiction.

The story of Camp Sumter

“Andersonville” is the popular name for Camp Sumter, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp constructed in southern Georgia in early 1864. (The first prisoners arrived on this day 155 years ago.) Over its year and a half of existence, Andersonville received 45,000 Union POWs, who arrived by train from all theaters of war. 13,000 of them died.

Kantor sets out to tell the whole story of Camp Sumter. He begins with the land itself, exploring the woods and fields through Ira Claffey, a local planter whose three sons have all died in the Confederate army and whose plantation teeters on the edge of collapse through lack of manpower and cash. Ira meets a Confederate surveying crew looking for land for a new prison camp. They settle on a valley on the banks of Sweetwater Creek and construction begins. By the time the camp is finished and the prisoners have begun to arrive, we still have a good 600 pages to go.

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The novel excels in its narrowly focused sketches of incidental characters and the world in which they move. While Ira Claffey and his family’s losses frame the whole narrative, other characters flit in and out of the story—a white trash boy who joins the Georgia Reserves (just like Georgie in my novel Griswoldville) and becomes a guard; Captain Henry Wirz, the Swiss-born commander of the stockade; a local Presbyterian minister who tries to organize charitable donations for the prisoners; one of the camp surgeons; and many, many of the Union prisoners.

The prisoners’ chapters are particularly poignant, as they often give a prisoner’s entire life story up to his time in the camp. One harbors intense homesickness to get back to the German immigrant girl he fell in love with; another, having fled his intensely religious father, has become a prodigal son and falls in with the stockade’s villains; another has become deranged since his capture at Chickamauga and has turned informer for the Confederates, a status he comes to abhor; another is an Irish immigrant sailor trying desperately to dote on his underage boy lover; another, who learned criminality and murder at a young age in the immigrant slums of New York, gathers similarly cutthroat survivors to himself to form a gang; another, the scion of a privileged and worldly Jewish family, retreats inward, losing himself in prolonged reminiscences of his travels. Still others form pairs or trios, sometimes merely on the basis of having the same home state, to try to help each other survive. A few try to tunnel their way out, with tragic results.

And many historical figures—from the obvious Confederate officers like Wirz or his superior, General John Winder; to prisoners like Red Cap, a drummer boy who did clerical work for Wirz; diarists John Ransom and John McElroy; violent “Raider” William Collins; and Boston Corbett, a religious fanatic who, after his release, would become the man who killed John Wilkes Booth—wander in and out of the story. Even those characters that only appear for a single chapter are finely drawn, their life stories familiar, their fates worth worrying over.

The novel unfolds in an elephantine mid-century modernist style, a style that reminded me quite a bit of both Norman Mailer’s 1948 novel The Naked and the Dead and any number of William Faulkner’s books, if you can imagine that combination. Kantor is also interested in typically mid-twentieth century issues—nihilism, the meaninglessness of suffering, whether religion does or does not have anything to offer, and weird sex. He does not use quotation marks and his studies of the characters often freewheel into pure stream-of-conscious remembering.

It’s dense, it’s heavy, but the sheer accumulation of detail adds steadily to the book’s power. One comes to feel the world in which the novel takes place and to sense the immense variety of the people who live in it, of all the fully lived lives coming together in this particular place in southern Georgia. It’s powerful.

Unfortunately, it can also be punishing, something Kantor surely intended but that wears on the reader after a while. When one particularly prominent character is—apparently—shot at random by a guard, Kantor diverts us from his fate for a good twenty pages before revealing that, yes, he was killed instantly. Many of the deaths in the book, of young men wasted away to nothing by starvation, exposure, and diarrhea, moved me; that one felt like a cruel trick.

After the Raiders

Kantor also never entirely overcomes one particular narrative hurdle: What happened while all those prisoners were in Andersonville? Not much, honestly, and so large parts of the book depict people simply existing. Life in the camp was a continuous struggle, so there’s narrative meat there, but it drags in places, particularly once Kantor has finished with the most notorious incident in the camp: the trial and execution of the Raiders.

The Raiders were Union prisoners, many from New York City, who recreated the predatory gang environment of their urban slums and lived off of their fellow soldiers and prisoners through theft and murder. In response, a band of prisoners calling themselves Regulators tried to create a system of mutual protection and law enforcement and ultimately fought a battle with the Raiders. Having received permission from the Confederate authorities at the camp, a jury of recent arrivals—theoretically less biased—tried the Raiders’ ringleaders and their most violent enforcers and sentenced six to hang.

A true story, and a gripping one—right? Kantor capably dramatizes the incident with a steady drip of violence from the Raiders, futile resistance by the other prisoners, and a gradual increase in tension that finally explodes in the prisoner-on-prisoner war and the hangings. But the first batches of prisoners arrived in the late winter and early spring of 1864, and the Raiders were tried in July, making the Raiders’ run of the prison dramatic but short. With this out of the way, we’re still less than halfway through the camp’s history and only halfway through the book. The rest is good, but it never quite regains the narrative momentum of this solid third of the story.

In the end, relief finally comes for the addled, dropsical, hopeless prisoners when a large number are transferred to other camps in order to reduce overcrowding. General Winder, the general in charge of Confederate POW camps and the obvious villain of the piece, dies in South Carolina. The war nears its end. From here the story becomes somewhat unfocused, seldom revisiting Camp Sumter’s stockade and giving only the vaguest sense of how things end for a number of characters, finally concluding with the surviving Claffeys—defeated, returned to the United States once more—hiring on their former slaves as sharecroppers and watching the empty prison overgrow and crumble.

Character assassination?

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Captain Henry Wirz (1823-65)

Andersonville was published in 1955, just ten years after the end of the Second World War. That conflict, in which Kantor worked as a war correspondent, looms over this novel in obvious ways. An overpopulated prison camp in which a third of the inmates, who arrived by rail, died of disease, starvation, and at the hands of guards—and commanded by a German-speaking officer in a gray uniform? At the end of the novel, when Union cavalry officers arrive to arrest Wirz at his home, a more or less explicit discussion of the Nuremberg defense occupies the conversation. Camp Sumter will always look a little different since Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Auschwitz joined it in the rearview mirror.

Kantor does depart from many of the immediate post-Civil War accounts of the prison by humanizing Henry Wirz—somewhat. He is a wildly exaggerated, hysterical, aggrieved man impotently trying to work out his frustrations, especially with a wounded arm that refuses to heal and a chain of command that gives him very limited real authority in his own camp. The result is his mismanagement of the prison, especially in times of prisoner unrest. Wirz’s immediate superiors, on the other hand, especially General Winder, are depicted as sadists intentionally trying to turn Andersonville into a charnel house and starve the Yankees—all propagandistic mischaracterizations originating immediately after the war.

The broader South, as seen through the Claffeys, is complicit as well. Their grief and bitterness at their terrible losses have seeded a deep desire to kill northerners at every opportunity. And though Ira Claffey in particular feels intense discomfort with the camp and the way honorably surrendered enemies are being treated, he and the others of his class are ultimately frozen into inaction by their ambivalence. And so the Yankees starve and waste away. Kantor explains Andersonville as the result of dark, archetypal resentments that somehow bring the cruelty of the camp into existence.

That makes for compelling literature but it doesn’t reflect reality and, thanks to the much wider readership awarded this Pulitzer Prize winner than any of the primary sources it was based upon, it has permanently skewed perceptions of Wirz, Andersonville, and what happened there. Subsequent dramatizations, including the TNT miniseries, have gone further. It is very difficult to watch that film version of Wirz without thinking of an unhinged Nazi commandant, a far cry from the pathetic figure in Kantor and the real person buried several layers down.

Good reading

So I finished reading Andersonville deeply conflicted. It is certainly a powerhouse of a novel, a modernist monument to what the written word can do in spinning whole lost and forgotten worlds into existence through an act of imagination, and its depiction of conditions in the camp, especially as the helpless prisoners weaken and die, is moving throughout—manifested as dread at the beginning of the novel, horror in the middle, and resignation and grief at the end. But it is also clearly a product of its time, obsessed with the things that preoccupied the post-World War II literary elite, and has only reinforced century-old myths and slanders about many of the people involved in the camp. As I wrote on Goodreads, “Four stars seems too low, but five is certainly too high.”

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

At Andersonville National Historic Site in December 2016

It’s a good book, but if you don’t want to invest the time and effort (literally—this book is a doorstop), check out William Marvel’s Andersonville: The Last Depot, an award-winning history published by Chapel Hill. Marvel includes all the major incidents dramatized in the novel, with special attention given to the Raiders, and assesses the charges eventually brought against Wirz at his trial, where he was convicted and hanged. It’s a well-researched, fair history of the camp from beginning to end.

Finally, nothing can substitute for a visit to the camp itself. I made the trek several years ago and have not forgotten it. Even the remoteness, a good forty minutes away from the nearest interstate, made an impression, and then there was the camp itself, with a few sections of recreated fenceline, the postbellum monuments, and the cemetery. If you’re interested in this topic, by all means read Kantor’s Andersonville, but make time to see the real place with your own eyes.

The Line that Held Us

It’s been quite a while since a novel has gotten its hooks into me the way The Line that Held Us did. Set in the rural North Carolina mountains near where I went to high school, this story by David Joy opens with an accidental killing that leads to lies, more lies, and ever more violence—including murder.

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Darl Moody is hunting on another man’s property, hoping to shoot an out-of-season buck for some extra meat, when he spots what he takes to be a wild hog rooting around the forest in the twilight. He shoots it and finds that he’s actually killed Carol “Sissy” Brewer, a simpleminded man he knew in high school. Like Darl, Sissy was poaching—ginseng, in this case. Darl is terrified. He’s not only accidentally killed a man while committing a crime himself, the victim is a Brewer, and the Brewers are a white trash family known for their independence and violence. Sissy’s brother Dwayne is a ruthless giant who delights in provocation and cutting people down to size, and he’s the devoted protector of his little brother. If Darl confesses to the killing he’ll go to jail—and he’ll have to contend with Dwayne.

Faced with this dilemma, Darl tries to wriggle his way out of it and calls up his best friend, Calvin Hooper. After a lot of begging, Darl convinces Calvin to help him cover up the killing, and they bury Sissy in one of Calvin’s fields.

This accident and their response to it set in motion a cycle of lies, suspicion, and violence. Dwayne, whom we first meet bullying some bullies in the Franklin Walmart, proves an excellent detective and wreaks terrible vengeance as he works his way toward the truth of what happened to his missing brother. Darl and Calvin, for their part, repeatedly double down on their lies, seeking refuge in the continually shrinking cover of untruth and exposing themselves and the people they love to more and more danger.

I don’t want to say much more about the plot, but it surprised me several times—again, something I haven’t felt in a lot of my recent fiction reading. And I haven’t felt such a keen sense of dread in a long time, either. Both of these things—the surprising turns and the steadily mounting dread—stem from the powerful characters Joy has created.

Darl and especially Calvin feel like real people; I pictured them as some of the guys I grew up and went to high school with. I know the type—think of an Appalachian Llewellyn Moss—and their actions are authentically motivated and true to life. They’re independent minded but bound by bone-deep obligations to the land and their families. Perhaps the only tie that proves stronger is their friendship. Joy develops real and recognizable secondary and tertiary characters, especially Coon Coward, the old loner, fiercely protective of his ginseng patch, upon whose property the story’s tragic hamartia begins.

But the real standouts among the supporting characters are the women—the mothers, sisters, and aunts that shore up mountain communities: “For as tough as the men were in these mountains,” he writes, “the women had always been stone. They were used to loss, accustomed to never having enough. They were fit for the harshness of this world.” Chief among them is Angie Moss, Calvin’s girlfriend. Angie embodies a seemingly paradoxical pair of hillbilly qualities: intense personal independence and unshakeable loyalty to other people—in this case, Calvin, and, as we find out early in the book, their unborn child. Angie plays a small but crucial role in the book, raising the stakes both for Calvin, whose lies ensnare him and then threaten to undo his world, and for Dwayne.

Dwayne is an Old Testament prophet, moved to wrath by love.

For Dwayne Brewer is the most arresting character in the book. Scarred by his upbringing but defiantly embracing it, a bundle of ideals and resentments, violence and tenderness, Dwayne quotes the Bible with the facility of a seminarian and believes unyieldingly in the rightness and immutability of God’s law, but leaves no room for forgiveness. He is an Old Testament prophet, moved to wrath by love. His sole motive in life is to protect his beloved brother; deprived of that, his mission becomes to foretell and inflict as much suffering on the transgressors as possible. He’s at his most terrifying when he has a point.

These character traits and bonds of loyalty and obligation drive the novel. Calvin helps Darl cover up his manslaughter out of brotherly love. Angie finds deep reserves of steadfastness, endurance, and courage out of love for her unborn child. And Dwayne wreaks the havoc he does out of love for his dead brother. And all of these characters—with the exception of Angie—wrestle with the consequences of their misplaced and disordered loves.

In a novel so attentive to the damage done to relationships and human lives by one primordial sin, the ensuing deceit, and the inevitable death and damnation that must come without an unforeseen and un-hoped for mercy, it cannot be coincidence that one of the protagonists is named Calvin.

The Line that Held Us is dark; violent; grotesque in the right ways and the right places, with torture, exhumations, and brutality I haven’t even mentioned; elegantly written, with an evident love for the mountains in which it takes place; and utterly gripping. I lost sleep—and at the busiest time of the semester—to finish this book. If you want a hard look at some of the places we can go out of love and loyalty, pick it up.

*****

You can watch Joy read the first chapter of The Line that Held Us and discuss the book as a whole here. I’m not surprised to learn that Joy is a fan of Ron Rash, as am I, and he also mentions Cormac McCarthy’s Lester Ballard in describing Dwayne. A good interview, well worth watching if my review has piqued your interest in this excellent novel.

Christmas giveaway

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For Christmas we’re giving away a set of all three of my novel-length works: Viking Age ghost story No Snakes in Iceland, World War II thriller Dark Full of Enemies, and my latest, Civil War coming of age story Griswoldville. To enter, simply visit my official Facebook page, find the photo of all three books posted above, and like it. That’s it. One entry could win you three books!

You can find out more about each book here on my website—I’ve linked each book’s page above—or by clicking through to my author pages on Amazon or Goodreads, where you can also see what previous readers think.

The giveaway ends Friday, December 14. The winner’s name will be drawn randomly and contacted directly via DM. You don’t have to share, tag, or like anything else to enter.

Best of luck, and thanks for reading!

Read an excerpt from No Snakes in Iceland

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With the lengthening nights and chillier days, I decided this is a good time to revisit my first published novel, No Snakes in Iceland. It’s—among other things—a ghost story set in the wilds of Viking Age Iceland, where an English poet and friend of the King of England has gone into exile among his enemies. There, in the gloom of a subarctic winter, he must confront not only the violent people he hates and apparently supernatural forces of incredible strength, but his own past.

I published No Snakes in Iceland almost three years ago after nearly a decade of writing, revision, reworking, and a whole lot of just sitting idly on a shelf. I’m proud of this novel and thankful to have gotten to write it, and have been humbled by the warm reception it’s had among readers. It’s encouraged me in my writing, and I can credit all of my work since—especially Griswoldville, the first full novel I’ve written since publishing No Snakes in Iceland—to the pleasure of both writing and releasing this first one.

So please enjoy this excerpt from the first half of No Snakes in Iceland, a trio of chapters in which Edgar, the narrator, meets a number of threatening new people on Thorssted, the farm where he and a pair of monks have traveled to investigate the presence of Sursa, a ghost.

If you like what you read, or if the story sounds interesting enough to you already, please do order a copy! And thanks as always for reading.

Presenting: the cover of Griswoldville

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This summer has proven unexpectedly busy. If you listened to my guest appearance on Impolitic Podcast last week, you'll remember that Historical Movie Monday has taken a bit of a hiatus. It will return, but each post is time consuming to research and write and in addition I'm teaching summer classes for the first time in four years, spending the weekends hustling back and forth on various family vacations, and—not insignificantly—I've been working hard to complete revisions on my latest novel.

And the revisions have been going well! So today I'm pleased to present the cover of my soon to be released novel Griswoldville

The story unfolds over the course of the Civil War, as a young boy and his family slowly adjust to the absences of fathers and uncles, the pinch of inflation and government requisition, and finally service in the militia. The description of the novel from the back cover: 

Madison Co., Georgia, 1864—14-year old Georgie Wax has spent the three years since his father left for the war looking after the family farm. WIth his mother and young brothers, Georgie and his grandfather Lafayette "Fate" Eschenbach have brought in the crops every fall, slaughtered the hogs every winter, and kept the farm running as the faraway war stretches on longer and longer and his father seems ever farther and farther away.

But when the enemy reaches their own state, Georgie and his grandfather are called up to the militia to protect Georgia against the invaders. Drilled mercilessly, mocked for lack of experience, and put to work at manual labor, Georgie finds war isn't the adventure he imagined it to be. Only with Atlanta fallen and the enemy on the move will Georgie,  Fate, and their fellow Georgia militiamen find a chance to prove themselves and save their homes from destruction—at a railside factory town called Griswoldville.

The novel should be available before the end of summer. I'm pretty excited about this one, and I hope y'all will be, too. Stay tuned for more announcements! 

More reader feedback

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A few more reviews from readers have popped up in the last few months. 

Jane, a retired librarian writing at Goodreads, writes that The Last Day of Marcus Tullius Cicero is a "deftly and smoothly written novella. . . . Highly recommended." 

Anthonia, reviewing Dark Full of Enemies at Goodreads, writes that she "enjoyed reading this fast paced book. Plus the characters were something else as well. The history is excellent along with the setting . . . A must read."

Jim, reviewing the novel on Amazon, writes that he is "glad I wasn't on a mission such as this. They encountered trouble at every turn. A good model for an international team. Good read." 

Thanks to all! I appreciate such generous readers. 

If you haven't yet read one of my books and would like to, follow the buttons below to their Amazon pages, and please leave a review once you've read them!