TOP 500 REVIEWERon 27 July 2014
American Civil War photographs taken by Matthew Brady, Alexander Gardner, George Barnard and Timothy O’Sullivan on the Union side and George S. Cook and Robert M. Smith of the Confederacy show the living and the dead, the appalling destruction and the enthusiasm of the combatants, many little more than children. This novel, I should call it a great novel, by the Australian Thomas Keneally is the literary equivalent of these visual records.
Some time ago I enjoyed the very readable histories of this war by Bruce Catton, 1899-1978, one of the books that the author cites as key sources, but I would not consider myself an expert. The book is somewhat intimidating, over 400 pages of rather small text and, before long, the reader is bombarded by lieutenants, generals, foot soldiers and cavalry, and, of course, surgeons. Thankfully, there is a very helpful map of Virginia in 1862 that shows the key sites, from Williamsburg and Yorktown, Lynchburg and Appomatix, to Harper’s Ferry, Annapolis and Manassas.
However, very soon Keneally has the reader gripped, shifting his focus from battles and skirmishes [the air ‘flying with bits of the corn crop and with limbs, naked and clothed, and with haversacks and heads and hands.’], to its origins and the external and – more importantly – the internal emotions of his characters. As an Australian, the author has an emotional detachment to the events of the war that helps him to describe complex, shifting and, frequently, chaotic events. It is something of a challenge for the reader to recall some of the peripheral characters that reappear after many pages. However, such is the author’s ability to sketch a three-dimension character that this happens surprisingly rarely.
Death [instantaneous and lingering], injury [fatal, severe and minor] and the consequent surgical butchery permeate this book might put some readers off. I hope that it does not. There are descriptions of unwise military manouevres, poor field communications, commanders ignoring orders and posturing and strutting – all that we recognise from the Great War.
There are also the valiant efforts of individual soldiers, their shared camaraderie, their fears in the face of the enemy and their fragmented memories of life before the war. Keneally portrays the organisational and personal relationships between the military and the civilian population whose land and possessions they strip, and the the morality of a just war that many strive to maintain. He introduces a compelling spy drama as well as the family relationships of key combatants through which themes of jealousy and doubt are played out.
Military equipment is forfeited by retreating soldiers and captured by the opposition before there is a reversal in fortunes and some of this materiel is recovered. There are heartrending descriptions of wounded soldiers left behind to die or be captured, of others deserting or crossing the battle lines, and of horses being blown apart. Many of the young soldiers were from farming backgrounds and their closest relationships were with these animals. Keneally shows the serendipity of the battlefield, killing off characters that we have come to know very well in the course of the novel. He focuses on the individual soldier’s constant diarrhea and dysentery, and the mass disposal of amputated limbs
In a truly masterly fashion, Keneally describes the overall military ebb and flow, the desperate hope for reinforcements, the over- and under-estimations of the opposing forces and their consequences, and the overriding military strategies and religious and social beliefs that are at play and divide those favouring union and secession.
This is undoubtedly one of the great war novels but through its well-developed list of characters it addresses human relationships between people under great stress and the ways in which they attempt to get through the atrocities they face, by drinking, thinking of what they will do when the violence ends or through their religious faith.
The ordinary combatants rarely receive proper burials, being dumped into mass graves or just decomposing on the battlefields after the fighting had moved on [cornfields with human remains ‘lying in heaps that must be climbed’]. A few were buried by their friends who vowed to return after the war to show the family of the dead where their loved one was lying.
This is a truly magnificent book that bears comparison with Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’.