Tag Archives: American Civil War

Man Booker Longlist 2017 – 1

Since this year I have been re-reading classics, I am woefully behind in modern fiction and as a consequence have only read one title on the longlist 2017, the Sebastian BarryDays Without End, about which I posted earlier under the title “America on my mind” on 30th November 2016.barry

Once again, with America and the Civil War still on my mind, I have now read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (what already?! the list was only published on Thursday.  I read fast and remember, so get used to it).

The Bardo is an equivalent to limbo, or possibly Purgatory, but in the Tibetan philosophy of the dead.

LincolnThis astonishing, Gothic and convoluted novel is as experimental as almost anything I have ever read. Created, chapter by chapter of snippets of “real” life writings, presumably some of them actual, we learn that President and Mrs Lincoln held an elaborate and elegant party at The White House, while the Civil War was raging elsewhere and, more importantly for this book, their son William Wallace was mortally ill upstairs.

Willie dies, and we switch to the Gothic spirit-life of the residents of the Washington Cemetery where Willie was temporarily laid in a borrowed mausoleum as described in a contemporary memoir.

Nothing could have been more peaceful or more beautiful than the situation of this tomb and it was completely undiscoverable to the casual cemetery visitor, being the very last tomb on the left at the extreme far reaches of the grounds, at the top of an almost perpendicular hillside that descended to Rock Creek below. The rapid water made a pleasant rushing sound and the forest trees stood up bare and strong against the sky.

In “Twenty Days”, by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B.Kunhardt Jr.

Here we meet, and discover the spirits of three remarkable men: Roger Bevins iii, whose life became so fraught with sexual and emotional disappointment that he slashed his wrists, and then regretted it, too late. Hans Vollmans, a printer with a much younger wife,  who dies in an accident at work and the Reverend Everly Thomas, who has seemingly died from natural causes at a reasonable old age.

Willie’s spirit arrives in his “sick-box” and these three are puzzling over why such a young soul should still linger, as other babies and young people have experienced the translation by the “matterlightblooming phenomenon” within hours or even days. But Willie stays.

Then to all of them an amazing event – the President comes to his son’s grave, opens his “sick-box” and holds the child in his arms, nothing like this has ever happened before and it causes consternation, excitement and memory.

To continue would be a spoiler.

Suffice to say, the switch between the grieving father, as reported by historical documents, and the Gothic spirit-life of the cemetery is brilliant. George Saunders has seized upon a titbit of history and woven around it a fantastical, mind-bending tale, full of sound and fury. Full, also, of love, sympathy, grief, loss and a great deal else. The lives of the residents of the graveyard, grotesques and humans alike, is imagined in generous and lively detail and the portrait of the grief-stricken father, weighted alike with a burden few can imagine, who have not themselves lost a son or a daughter; and who at the same time is also responsible, directly or indirectly, for the deaths of thousands of other sons and daughters, and whose side in the conflict is not going well; and for the survival of a nation, is insightful and moving.

The historical context alone would make this an interesting book, but it is more, much more and I enjoyed it hugely.

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America on my mind

No, this is not a “dump Trump” polemic (for a change). I am concerned with two remarkable novels about America before and during and after the Civil War, that is between 1861 to 1870. These will be followed by another book about America which lies at the top of my TBR pile – Darktown by Thomas Mullen, set in Atlanta in 1948 – watch this space.

barryRead in order of chronology, Sebastian Barry‘s new novel – Days Without End follows the fortunes and misfortunes of one, Thomas McNulty. It is a given that SB mines his own family history, not always as popular with said family as with his readers, and this is another fictionalised account of a distant relative.

Thomas leaves Sligo for Canada after his mother and sister have died in the potato famine; he knows what hunger is and escapes. Canada spits him out and he signs up with a friend, John Cole for the US military.

If you know your history, this will remind you that it is at the time of the “Indian Wars”. Thomas and John are both drafted into battalions hiking out towards California on the Oregon trail. This is not a book for the faint-hearted, there are graphic descriptions of killing, brutality and inter-race misunderstandings. Thomas and John do what they are told, without liking it one bit.

But the tale has a twist in it, and they end up with responsibility for a young Indian girl from the Oglala Sioux tribe.

So this is also a book about love, between two men and between these two men and the young girl, aged about ten. They leave the army and head off towards a peaceful future, but then the Civil War starts and they need to sign up again…

The second book has many attributes that echo Days Without End. News of the World follows the fortunes of one Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd who after the Civil War, but while the country is still unstable not to say frankly lawless, goes around the States giving public readings from newspapers.jiles

Bearing in mind that many people were illiterate, these were popular events and Captain Kidd made himself a living from it. But in Wichita Falls, he is called upon to take a young German-born child, also about ten, back to her relatives in Castroville. A tremendous distance, pretty much the length of Texas.

Paulette Jiles has presented us with a densely packed novel of exceptional interest, daring and emotion. Beautifully crafted and written, Captain Kidd and the young girl whom he calls Johanna, travel in a second hand buggy through plains and mountains, along and across flooded rivers braving Indians, cowboys, and plain evil-minded pimps.

This too, is by way of a love story. Johanna is an Indian-captive child, she has witnessed appalling horrors.  The Captain is old enough to be her grandfather but he grows to respect and admire her, and she grows to love him. Their adventures bring them even closer together, but he knows, even if he cannot get her to understand, that his mission accomplished will sever their connection.

The inevitable tension in this arrangement, and the growing bond between the two is exquisitely written.

If you read this and enjoyed them, you might also like The Son by Phillip Meyer [Not the Booker – a motley collection posted 4th September 2013]scan0003

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