Wednesday, December 29, 2010

God and Man

“The belly is the reason man does not so easily take himself for a god.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

God and Man

“So little do we see before us in the world, and so much reason have we to depend cheerfully upon the great Maker of the world, that He does not leave His creatures so absolutely destitute, but that in the worst circumstances they have always some thing to be thankful for, and sometimes are nearer to their deliverance than they imagine; nay, are even brought to their deliverance by the means by which they seem to be brought to their destruction.”
Daniel Defoe, The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (Robinson Crusoe)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Battle of the Wilderness, May 5-6, 1864 by Gordon C. Rhea

Sometimes I think about the books I’ll read again when I’m retired and have all the free time in the world. The Leatherstocking Tales always come to mind when I do this—not in the order they were written, but in “chronological order” from when Natty is the youthful Deerslayer, on his first warpath, to when we bid farewell to him as an old man on the ever-advancing westward Prairie. Another is Gordon Rhea’s meticulous and superb series on Grant’s 1864 Overland Campaign.

The Battle of the Wilderness is actually the first in that series, but it’s the fourth one I’ve read, and I’ve scoured the Internet looking for news of when and if the fifth and further ones are coming out (Gordon, if you’re out there with a Google Alert set on your name, please let me know.) As I’ve previously reported, these books and their author seem unique in their ability to simultaneously: (a) convey a great deal of detailed information about troop movements; (b) capture the perspectives of the individual soldiers fighting the battles; and (c) explain the strategy underlying it all and the thoughts going on in the heads of the commanding generals. Most battle narratives I’ve read focus on only one of these areas and give short shrift to the other two. Rhea consistently balances all three in works that are both scholarly and accessible to the average reader.

Now, having said that. Let me take issue with one of the first strategic overviews he gives in this first book of his excellent series.

On the face of it, Lee’s plan had an appealing logic. The possibilities became even more exciting upon a close look at the map. A few miles below the Rapidan fords on Lee’s right sprawled a densely wooded tract known as the Wilderness of Spotsylvania. From the rebel perspective, the Wilderness offered an ideal battlefield. [Major General George G.] Meade’s imposing artillery and cavalry would be hobbled, and the Federals would have difficulty bringing their numbers to bear. Accosting Meade in the Wilderness made eminent sense as a southern objective.

Like all of Rhea’s writing, this appears a lucid and reasoned synopsis of Lee’s battle strategy. Except it strikes me as relying too much on hindsight.

The whole Overland Campaign is a string of battles in which the Federals aggressively attack the Southerners and get slaughtered in great numbers—the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, North Anna, Cold Harbor; they all follow that pattern. Every one a numerical loss for Grant but every one an opportunity to whittle away at the unreplaceable veterans of the Army of Northern Virginia and drive closer to the rebel capital in Richmond. What’s different about the Wilderness is that it was fought in the Wilderness, a place that caused just as many problems with communication and unit cohesion for Lee as it did for Grant.

Rhea continues…

For Lee to snag Meade in the toils of the Wilderness, he would have to take steps to retard the Union advance. Otherwise, the Federals might march through the Wilderness before Lee had sufficient opportunity to maneuver into place. Even [Lieutenant General Richard S.] Ewell’s corps, which held the downriver portion of the Rapidan defensive live, would need nearly a day to swing across the roads radiating from the fords. And if the Confederates failed to win the race against Meade, the consequence would be catastrophic. A massive Union host would stand between the Army of Northern Virginia and the capital it was charged to defend.

I don’t think Lee wanted to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. I think Lee felt like he had to trap the Federals in the Wilderness. To allow the Federals to march past and onto Richmond was unthinkable. But the fact was Grant did not march the Army of the Potomac towards Richmond when he had the chance. After crossing the Rapidan he turned the blue columns west towards Lee, not south towards Richmond, because Lee’s army, not the Southern capital, was Grant’s objective. Lee did not yet know it, but Lincoln and Grant had figured out that as long as Lee led an army in the field, the Confederacy would live on, regardless of how many of its cities the Federals occupied.

Rhea continues…

Lee had earlier described the first precept of his military philosophy: to do “everything in my power to make my plan as perfect as possible, and to bring the troops upon the field of battle.” The Wilderness was clearly the Confederates’ most advantageous field of battle. To better the chances of fighting there, one possibility was to fortify Germanna Ford and Ely’s Ford. A few well-placed brigades at the crossings might buy the Army of Northern Virginia time to move across Meade’s path. A second option involved edging substantial contingents from Ewell, [Lieutenant General Ambrose P.] Hill, and perhaps even [Lieutenant General James] Longstreet toward the Wilderness. With their marching time reduced, these units would be able to ambush the enemy in the woodland and hold them there until the rest of the Confederate army came up. As [Brigadier General E. Porter] Alexander later put it, “In view of the great probabilities that Grant would move upon our right flank very early in May, it does not seem that there would have been any serious difficulty in having both Hill and Ewell out of their winter camps and extended a few miles in that direction and Longstreet’s corps even as far down as Todd’s Tavern [below the Wilderness].

The impossibility of removing Longstreet from the rail line prevented Lee from advancing the entire 1st Corps, but there was no compelling reason against sidling substantial elements from Longstreet, Ewell, and Hill toward the Wilderness. Doing so would sharply increase the odds of pinning Grant in the thickets with little weakening of the Confederate defensive works.

Inexplicably, Lee neglected to take any steps calculated to influence Meade’s advance or to ensure that the Confederates would reach the Wilderness ahead of him. [Major General] Fitzhugh Lee’s cavalry patrols were instructed to sound the alarm on Meade’s approach, but they were not expected to offer any serious obstacle to the Union army’s progress. No attempt was made to fortify the Rapidan crossings or to hold rebel infantry in readiness to offer resistance. And not a single Confederate unit was ordered toward the Wilderness to get a jump on the northerners.

Inexplicably? There’s nothing inexplicable about it. Lee did not want to fight Grant in the Wilderness, where his movements and communications would be just as hobbled as Grant’s. He wanted to find out where Grant was going and then attack him in pieces as he had done to so many other Northern generals. The clashes ultimately came in the Wilderness, but it was not ground of Lee’s choosing.

Rhea concludes…

Leaving the pace of the Federal movement to chance, Lee chose to rely solely on his second precept: “The rest must be done by my generals and their troops, trusting to Providence for the victory.”

The gamble exposed the Army of Northern Virginia to fearsome risks. Lee’s troops were dangerously outnumbered, and the capacity of his generals remained a matter of genuine concern. By failing to take steps to ensure that his army would meet the enemy on advantageous ground, Lee was courting disaster.

Having neglected to lay plans with his accustomed degree of care, Lee had nothing to fall back on but Providence, the final ingredient in the gray-haired general’s formula for victory. Fortunately for the rebels, Providence had not abandoned them. At that very moment, its hand could be seen in decisions being made across the Rapidan by the Union top command.

And this is the most perplexing of all. Providence? Does Rhea know what Lee meant when he spoke of Providence? Lee meant the divine hand of Almighty God, whom Lee and Lincoln and hundreds of others had deluded themselves into thinking actually cared one way or the other in this bloody flight in one corner of His creation. Is that what Rhea means, too? I hope not. One of the lessons war is supposed to teach all of us is that God is not on anybody’s side.

It is a device he returns to a few more times, to explain away the quirks of fate that bend Lee’s way but never, it seems, those that bend Grant’s. Here he speaks of Providence playing a role in the Union decision to stop the blue columns in the Wilderness rather than marching through it.

Headquarters, however, decided to stop the troops in the Wilderness during the afternoon of May 4. Providence, it seemed, was restoring to Lee the opportunity that he had neglected to achieve by his own planning.

A shame that Providence couldn’t figure out a way to resolve this conflict without such a horrific loss of life.

But I’m willing to cut Rhea some slack because he’s so good at putting together so many other pieces of the puzzle. He’s especially good at putting in details of the individual soldier’s experience, culled from the many diaries, letters and remembrances that he cites throughout his impressive work. Here’s a moving example from the Union side, a private with some time to kill the night before the Battle of the Wilderness would begin in earnest.

As darkness fell, Private Wilkeson, who had heeded admonitions to collect as much food and water as possible, strolled around Chancellorsville. In some places, polished skulls covered the ground. Leg bones, arm bones, and ribs protruded from shallow graves. Other soldiers joined him. Together they studied remains for bits of clothing to determine whether they belonged to Yankees or Confederates. They built a fire where the graves were thickest. Sitting on the long, low mounds, they talked about the previous spring’s fighting. Smoke drifted through the air. Trees swayed and sighed in the wind. A veteran recounted how the year before, the wounded had helplessly burned to death in thick underbrush. Listeners shuddered and drew closer around the fire. “This region,” whispered the veteran, waving his arm toward the surrounding woods, “is an awful place to fight in. The utmost extent of vision is about one hundred yards. Artillery cannot be used effectively. The wounded are liable to be burned to death. I am willing to take my chances of getting killed, but I dread to have a leg broken and then to be burned slowly; and these woods will surely be burned if we fight here. I hope we will get through this chapparal without fighting.” The speaker took off his cap and quietly smacked it clean of dust from the day’s journey. The men sat silently smoking, staring into the fire. An infantry soldier, who had been stabbing a shallow grave with a bayonet, pried out a skull and rolled it across the ground. He spoke in a deep, quiet voice. “This is what you are all coming to, and some of you will start toward it tomorrow.” The group broke up, most of the men scurrying back to their regimental camps. A few, including Wilkeson, remained by the dying embers and smoked. Lee, they said among themselves, was going to face Grant in the Wilderness. And all of them agreed that Lee held the advantage. After midnight, Wilkeson crept under his caisson, resting his head on a knapsack and dozing to the pops of rifle shots from cavalry pickets patrolling toward Fredericksburg. Dawn was not far off, and with it would come another march and perhaps battle. And somewhere to the west, in blackness beyond the farthest glow of Meade’s dying campfires, Lee’s soldiers were filing by thousands onto Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike.

It sometimes easy to forget how much death the Civil War brought, and how difficult it must have been for the men who lived through it to see so much of it going on around them. A callousness towards it is to be expected, I suppose, as is a kind of resignation and ambivalence should it ever find you.

The other thing Rhea is so good at is not over-dramatizing the mythic events that surround so many Civil War battles. Indeed, in Cold Harbor, he bit by bit dismantles most of that battle’s common folklore through meticulous research and cogent analysis. In The Battle of the Wilderness, his treatment of one of the first “Lee to the rear” stories of the war is refreshing in its simple recitation of the facts and lack of heart-swelling hyperbole.

It is one of the most interesting aspects of the Wilderness—that twice the commanding general of the Army of Northern Virginia came within inches of being captured by enemy troops or being wounded in battle. It was partly a result of the tangled mess that was the battlefield. No one, Federal and Confederate commander alike, really knew where they were or where the enemy was at any given time. Chance encounters with potentially disastrous effects happened frequently.

Suddenly a line of Union skirmishers materialized from the shadows and nervously probed into the field, guns ready. Lee self-assuredly walked toward Orange Plank Road calling for his adjutant Taylor. [Major General James E. B.] Stuart stood up and stared straight at the Yankees. Hill remained still, his aide [Colonel William H.] Palmer at his side.

Within pistol shot of the bluecoats, and for a moment breathlessly frozen in time, stood as rich a prize as a Yankee mind could imagine. Robert E. Lee, Jeb Stuart, and Powell Hill were helpless, unprotected, and ripe for plucking.

The three Confederate generals escaped that encounter, the Federal commander not realizing who they were and believing their presence indicated a larger Confederate force he was not ready to meet. But a closer call would come later, when Lee’s own enthusiasm and need to strike a killing blow would compel him to attempt to lead an infantry charge himself.

For me, it is actually a sign of how desperate the Confederate situation was becoming. As in many of his battles, Lee’s army was divided, with Longstreet’s corps not engaged on the first day and marching hard to reach the battle on the second. Lee counted heavily on Longstreet’s early morning arrival, but when the Union general Hancock attacked on May 6, Longstreet was not yet up and the men of A. P. Hill’s corps were not ready for it. Tired and wounded from the battle of May 5, they broke and ran from the advancing Federal troops.

Lee and Hill were furiously attempting to restore order. The commander in chief’s composure was shattered. He was “excited and chagrined,” recalled an onlooker, and he spoke “rather roughly” to unheeding soldiers. Spotting [Brigadier General Samuel] McGowan bobbing along in a sea of gray uniforms, Lee rushed to the brigadier and shouted, “My God! General McGowan, is this splendid brigade of yours running like a flock of geese?” McGowan answered, “General, the men are not whipped. They only want a place to form, and they will fight as well as they ever did.” [Major General Cadmus] Wilcox materialized out of the vortex of troops and reported on his division’s perilous condition. Lee had no time to listen. It was obvious what had happened. Without reinforcements, all was lost. “Longstreet must be here,” Lee exclaimed in exasperation. “Go bring him up.” Relegated to the role of messenger, Wilcox rode off, swept along by soldiers hurrying to escape the Federal onslaught. In anticipation of the worst, Lee directed his aide [Lieutenant Colonel Walter H.] Taylor to ride to Parker’s Store and prepare the army’s supply train for immediate retreat. [Charles] Venable was dispatched to help find Longstreet.

Here’s a glimpse of Lee we’ve seldom seen, but will see more of here in the Wilderness and in the battles yet to come. The master of grand strategy, the general who moves the pieces on the chessboard but lets them do the actual fighting, is forced to take tactical command of the situation and act the part of a combat general. His army is smaller than it used to be, divided, and is losing both good men and good leaders. As he and A. P. Hill work to restore order, the former artilleryman Hill actually dismounts from his horse and helps to fire one of the Confederate cannon. What a scene that must have been!

Longstreet’s men do come up—in the nick of time—as the Union troops are actively advancing through the clearing Lee had been using for his headquarters. A blow must be struck and struck hard if the Confederate Army is to survive and Lee, painfully short of aggressive combat generals, again takes direct command.

Gregg’s troops swept past the batteries where Lee was standing. [Brigadier General John] Gregg was a stranger to Lee, having served in the Confederacy’s western armies before joining the 1st Corps during the Tennessee campaign. Flushed with excitement, Lee eased his horse next to Gregg and shouted above the din, “General, what brigade is this?”

“The Texas brigade,” came the answer.

“I am glad to see it,” cried Lee. “When you go in there, I wish you to give those men the cold steel—they will stand and fight all day, and never move unless you charge them.” Pausing to study the approaching blue line, Lee added by way of encouragement, “The Texas brigade always has driven the enemy, and I want them to do it now. And tell them, General, that they will fight today under my eyes—I will watch their conduct. I want every man of them to know I am here with them.”

“Attention, Texas Brigade,” Gregg boomed for all to hear. “The eyes of General Lee are upon you. Forward. March.”

Lee could not contain his excitement. He raised high in his stirrups. Emotion transformed his face. Tearing off his hat and waving it high, he shouted, “Texans always move them!”

“A yell rent the air that must have been heard for miles around,” recalled a Texan near Gregg’s front ranks, “and but few eyes in that old brigade of veterans and heroes of many a bloody field was undimmed by honest, heartfelt tears.” Leonard Gee, one of Gregg’s couriers, summed up the feeling. “I would charge hell itself got that old man,” he swore in a voice choked with emotion.”

Indeed they would, and Lee knew it. He was counting on their love of him as one of the key weapons they had left to them, to be used in crucial situations where men must be motivated to do what they otherwise wouldn’t. But Lee feels the need to do still more.

The Texans continued on, eight hundred strong, straight at the Federals. Still agitated, Lee spurred his horse through the cannon and advanced with Gregg’s soldiers. At first the Texans did not notice that Lee was with them. Part way across the field, however, it became apparent that he intended to lead the charge himself. That would never do. Ahead was death, especially for a man on horseback.

“Go back, General Lee. Go back!” came the cry, spreading across the entire column. But Lee would not stop. The Texans slowed their pace, looking over at the bareheaded man. Lee’s gray hair splayed in the breeze. His eyes were fixed on the front. “We won’t go on unless you come back,” the troops shouted, but he ignored their pleas. Several soldiers attempted to lead the general’s horse to the rear, and a particularly tall Texan seized his rein. It appeared to one onlooker that “five and six of his staff would gather around him, seize him, his arms, his horse’s reins, but he shook them off and moved forward.”

According to Venable, who was the only aide present, Gregg remonstrated with Lee. “Well then, I will go back,” replied the rebel commander, and began turning his horse around. “Yonder is General Longstreet,” cried Venable, pointing out the commander of the 1st Corps to Lee. Lee and Longstreet conferred briefly on troop dispositions; then Lee moved a little way off. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Venable informed Longstreet of Lee’s attempt to lead the Texas brigade’s charge. Something had to be done to prevent him from risking his life again.

Longstreet handled the assignment with “affectionate bluntness,” the staffer later recounted. Riding over to Lee, Longstreet assured the gray-haired general that he could restore the Confederate line if given a free hand. But if not needed, he would like to leave, “as it was not quite comfortable where we were.” As Longstreet recalled it, Lee was “off his balance.” Reluctantly, the Virginian rode to the rear, leaving the immediate details of the fighting to his trusted subordinate. Taking firm control, Longstreet ordered Hill’s soldiers to re-form while he prepared his 1st Corps to counterattack. Up and down, Longstreet rode, his horse at a walk, addressing each regiment as it slipped into line. “Keep cool, men, we will straighten this out in a short time—keep cool,” Palmer heard him repeating.

Here, and in other places, Rhea portrays Lee as being moved by his own passion, but I think there is more calculation than passion in these actions. Lee knew the effect his presence had on his men, and their willingness to charge even certain death to prove their worthiness to them. But here, unlike the third day at Gettysburg, Lee feels he can no longer hang back while his men take all the risks. His presence among them will inspire them all the more, and the longer odds against him require that additional inspiration. But more importantly, he can never again ask his men to do what he is not willing to do himself.

And despite their refusal of his risking his own safety, they perform as Lee needs them to and as they must if the Confederacy is to survive.

Gregg’s Confederates charged again. This time the Union line bowed back. But the Federals were too numerous for the lone rebel brigade. Face-to-face fighting continued, with neither side willing to retreat. “For 25 minutes we held them steady,” boasted a Confederate who lived through the carnage, “and at the expiration of that time more than half of our brave fellows lay around us dead, dying and wounded, and the few survivors could stand it no longer.” So severe was the combat that many Federals fired without finishing loading. Later, a rebel recalled ramrods driven into trees so deeply that he could not pull them out. Gregg was nearly killed, and blood flowed from several bullet wounds in his horse. His seasoned troops could not withstand such punishment. At his command, they grudgingly gave ground. The brigade had been diminished to a skirmish line. Of 800 men who went into action, fewer than 250 returned unharmed. The 5th Texas lost its commander, its officers, and nearly two-thirds of its troops. The 3rd Arkansas lost its colonel and all but two officers. Some companies were almost obliterated. In one, a single soldier survived to answer the next day’s roll call. The price had been high but Gregg had accomplished his goal. He had rocked the Union assault column back on its heels.

After this retreat a brigade of Georgians go in, and after they are “badly cut up,” a brigade of Alabamians charge forward.

Taking notice of the Alabamians, Lee asked, “What troops are these?” A private in the 15th Alabama called back, “Law’s Alabama brigade.” Lee shouted, “God bless the Alabamans. Alabama soldiers, all I ask of you is to keep up with the Texans.” To William Perry, who was commanding Law’s brigade, the effect was electrifying. “It is impossible not to feel that every man that passed him was, for the time being, a hero,” he later wrote.

Yes, send more of them in, Bobby Lee. Pump them full of passion and fidelity, and then send them in to their deaths. He had to. Even though he was running out of men, many of whom were well nigh impossible to replace, he had to keep pushing them harder and harder. It was the only chance he had to win.

But at what cost? Let’s move forward several hours, after Longstreet has completed a successful flank attack on Hancock’s men, and is out scouting with his staff in an attempt to keep the pressure on.

Shots rang out and deadly minie balls whizzed through the air. Someone cried out, “Show your colors.” The 12th Virginia’s color bearer—the same man who had refused to give the flag to [Lieutenant Colonel Moxley G.] Sorrel a few minutes before—kept his wits. Boldly striding into the roadway, he waved the flag overhead. The headquarters cavalcade was caught in the cross fire. [Brigadier General Micah] Jenkins’ soldiers fell to their knees and aimed blindly into the brush. Realizing that the shooting came from Confederates [Brigadier General Joseph B.] Kershaw dashed into Jenkins’ troops in an attempt to prevent an even greater tragedy. “They are friends,” he screamed. Immediately understanding what had happened, Jenkins’ men held their fire. Bullets ricocheted through the woodland. In these thickets, where figures could be perceived only dimly through smoke and trees, men on horseback ran a special risk. A lead projectile tore through Jenkins’ skull, tumbling the handsome South Carolinian from his horse. “F-r-i-e-n-d-s!” screamed Kershaw. Longstreet rode forward to try to stop the firing. He was a heavy man and maintained a firm seat in his saddle. Looking over, Sorrel saw Longstreet lift straight up, then drop down hard. A confused look clouded Longstreet’s face. Blood spurted from a gaping hole in his neck. More gushed from an exit wound behind his right shoulder. Not yet fully comprehending what had happened, the War Horse tried to turn and ride back. Slowly he slumped in the saddle. His body began to flop from side to side. Seeing that Longstreet was about to fall, his aides jumped to the ground. They quieted his horse, then lifted Longstreet and laid him under a tree.

Longstreet was one of Lee’s original corps commanders. Shortly after the Seven Days in 1862, Lee organized the Army of Northern Virginia into two mighty corps, the first under James Longstreet, the second under Stonewall Jackson. It was in this configuration that the army won all of its glory, at battles like Second Bull Run, Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Lee’s masterpiece of strategy, Chancellorsville. But it was at Chancellorsville that Jackson was killed, shot accidently by his own troops while scouting for a fresh attack. The army was never the same after that, Lee creating three corps out of what had once been two, and never again regaining the one-two punch of aggressiveness and power that Jackson and Longstreet had brought him. And now, almost a year to the day later, at a spot less than two miles away from where Jackson had been shot, Longstreet was wounded accidently by his own troops while scouting for a fresh attack on the enemy. Longstreet would recover, but psychologically, it was a blow from which the army wouldn’t.

Longstreet was bleeding profusely from where a bullet had entered his neck and passed out his right shoulder. His staff conducted a hurried examination and concluded that the wound was fatal. Francis Dawson, a British volunteer, mounted and darted rearward to find a doctor. “Giving the sad news to the first surgeon I could find,” he later wrote, “I made him jump on my horse, and bade him, for Heaven’s sake, ride as rapidly as he could to the front where Longstreet was.” It just so happened that Dawson had given his mount to Dr. J. S. D. (“Dorsey”) Cullen, the 1st Corps’ medical director. Cullen reached the prostrate Longstreet without delay. The general was choking on his own blood. Laboring feverishly, the doctor tried to stanch the hemorrhage.

Longstreet, despite his condition, remained preoccupied with the battle. Propped against a tree, a bloody froth bubbling at his mouth, he called orders to a passing colonel. “Tell General Field to take command,” he rasped, “and move forward with the whole force and gain the Brock Road.” Field was quickly summoned to Longstreet’s side. Realizing that his injury might be fatal, Longstreet conducted a whispered conversation with his division commander. “Assume command of the corps,” Longstreet told him. “Press the enemy.” Longstreet’s instructions to his aide-de-camp were in the same spirit. “He urged me to hasten to General Lee,” Sorrel later recorded, “report what had been accomplished, and urge him to continue the movement he was engaged on; the troops being all ready, success would surely follow, and Grant, he firmly believed, be driven back across the Rapidan.”

Dr. Cullen meanwhile managed to check the flow of blood. The general was lifted onto a litter and a hat placed over his face to shield him from the sun. Word traveled quickly, and gray-clad soldiers crowded the road to verify reports of Longstreet’s injury for themselves. The inert form, face covered, seemed to confirm their worst fears. “He is dead, and they are telling us he is only wounded,” soldiers murmured. Concerned about the morale of his corps, Longstreet drew on his seemingly inexhaustible reserve of energy and lifted his hat with his left hand. The response was immediate. “The burst of voices and the flying of hats in the air,” Longstreet later reminisced, “eased my pains somewhat.” Longstreet was lifted into an ambulance and a somber procession jostled toward the Confederate hospital tents at Parker’s Store. The general’s staff rode silently with the wagon, one distraught officer standing on the conveyance’s rear step to be nearer the injured Longstreet. “I never on any occasion during the four years of the war saw a group of officers and gentlemen more deeply disturbed,” recorded a passing artillery major. “They were literally bowed down with grief. All of them were in tears. One, by whose side I rode for some distance, was himself severely hurt, but he made no allusion to his wound, and I do not believe he felt it.” The artilleryman looked inside. Longstreet’s hat, coat, and boots had been removed and the blood had drained from his face. “I noticed how white and dome-like his great forehead looked and, with scarcely less reverent admiration, how spotless white his socks and his fine gauze undervest, save where the black red gore from his breast and shoulder had stained it. While I gazed at his massive frame, lying so still, except when it rocked inertly with the lurch of the vehicle, his eyelids frayed apart till I could see a delicate line of blue between them, and then he very quietly moved his unwounded arm and, with thumb and two fingers, carefully lifted the saturated undergarment from his chest, holding it up for a moment, and heaved a deep sigh.” Within the hour, Longstreet’s ambulance had reached the Confederate field hospital. There Dr. Cullen and three other surgeons probed the wound. It was, they concurred, “not necessarily fatal.”

Both armies struggled and lost good men in the Wilderness. I think that’s the point I’m trying to make. This wasn’t a cakewalk for Lee—a happy jaunt to lure Grant into the Wilderness so they could bushwhack him. The Confederates got tangled and turned around just as much as the Federals did, and Lee, with less men and more to lose, had to turn several more somersaults than Grant in order to keep from losing his army. Contrast Rhea’s depiction of Lee’s desperation when Federal troops stumble into the very clearing of his headquarters to that of Grant’s cool-headedness under the same threat.

The general-in-chief was seated on a stump. For a few moments, it appeared that the fighting might reach him. Grant rose and surveyed the scene, cigar smoke mingling with smoke from Union cannon. “General, wouldn’t it be prudent to move headquarters to the other side of the Germanna road till the result of the present attack is known?” suggested an edgy officer. Grant responded quietly, punctuating his remarks with puffs from his cigar. “It strikes me it would be better to order up some artillery and defend the present location.” A Federal battery was obediently rolled forward. The precaution, it developed, was unnecessary. Union artillery fire deterred Confederates from entering the Lacy clearing.

They say Gettysburg was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy, but I think it was actually the Wilderness. Lee still had men to fight with after Gettysburg, and was willing to risk them in aggressive moves against his enemy. After the Wilderness, however, he was finally hamstrung by the lack of replacements and Grant’s constant pressure into a perpetually defensive posture. Rhea echoes this reality in the typically sound analysis he provides at the end of the book.

But in a broader perspective, the battle manifested a Confederate failure. The southerners had been unable to maintain the initiative. Now the Army of Northern Virginia’s offensive capacity was spent. The armies faced each other across a few hundred yards of shattered brush. The grand maneuvers that had served Lee so well in the past were no longer possible. The only reasonable course of action remaining to the Confederates was to stay in their strong defensive line and wait for Grant to make a mistake.

This is what makes the Wilderness different from the other battles of the Overland Campaign. It confirmed once and for all that the ghastly mathematics of the North’s superior numbers would finally bring the war to an end. One has to wonder how many lives could have been saved if Lee had allowed himself to recognize this fact prior to Appomattox.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

God and Man

“Life is pain, life is fear, and man is unhappy. Everything is now pain and fear. Man loves life now because he loves pain and fear. That’s how it’s been. Life is given in return for pain and fear now, and that’s the whole deception. But man is still not really man. There will come a new man, happy and proud. He who doesn’t care whether he lives or dies—he’ll be the new man. He who conquers pain and fear—will become God. And then the old God will no longer exist.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Devils (Aleksei Nilych Kirillov)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chapter Five

from STONE TO FLESH
FARCHRIST TALES - BOOK ONE

Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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In Farchrist Year twenty-five, the son of the Peasant King founded the Knights of Farchrist. The King dubbed his son a Knight, and Sir Gregorovich Farchrist II began to teach three other young men the knightly virtues he had mastered. First and foremost, essential to the knightly way of life, was an undying faith in Grecolus, the creator of the universe and most holy god. One of the three young men—called Squires—was found to own a small magic book that contained pictures that moved as if they were alive. It was called a grave sacrilege and he was expelled from the Order immediately.

+ + +

The small party left Queensburg early the next morning. They were dressed and ready for battle. Shortwhiskers wore his chainmail under his dwarven cloak. In his left hand was a small unadorned shield and his right hand firmly gripped his belt, from which hung his jeweled-scabbarded sword. He wore his broad-brimmed hat and led his pack mule laden with supplied and spare weapons. Brisbane was garbed simply in his studded leather jerkin, tan pants, and boots. He walked with his blonde hair untethered and it fell loose past his shoulders. He held a short sword that the dwarf had lent him. Roystnof was, as always, dressed in red and black, his attire changing little for combat. He needed no blade to kill an opponent and no armor to protect himself.

They followed the shoreline of the Darkmarine until they reached the Mystic River. There, they turned southward and into the Windcrest Hills. The August sun was hot and soon the march became tiring and tedious. To pass the time they made conversation among themselves, but all seemed to avoid the topic of what lay ahead for them and for Ignatius Roundtower.

“What did Stargazer mean about your ribs?” Brisbane asked the dwarf at one point, referring to the night before.

Shortwhiskers grunted. “I took a nasty fall once and broke a few of them. She patched me up.”

Brisbane nodded. “Have you known her long?”

Shortwhiskers paused before he answered. “Yes.”

“How did you meet?”

“Listen, Gil,” Shortwhiskers said. “The tale of Allison Stargazer and myself ties in with the tale of your forefathers that I promised to tell you. I can begin that tale today if you like.”

Brisbane nodded. “I wish you would.”

The dwarf looked at Roystnof who was walking on the other side of him. The wizard nodded his head once as if granting permission. Shortwhiskers then turned back to Brisbane.

“It is a long tale, Gil,” he said. “And parts of it are painful for me to tell. I will begin today and stop when I choose, and I do not want to hear you begging me for more. You will hear it all, but only when I am ready to tell it. Agreed?”

“I think I can discipline myself,” Brisbane said.

“Very well then,” Shortwhiskers said. “Your grandfather, Gildegarde Brisbane, became a Knight of Farchrist in what you would call Farchrist Year fifty-four. He was the first of the Risers, select boys taken from the lower classes and trained to be a Knight from youth.”

That reminded Brisbane of his own boyhood. Had his father remained a Knight and lawfully married his mother before his conception—but no, wait a minute, his mother was of the lower class and Knights were in the upper class, whether they started as Risers or not. Their union was and would be forbidden regardless. Brisbane had often found this restriction silly, but it seemed that social standing was more important to members of the upper class.

“I know little of your grandfather’s history before this time,” Shortwhiskers said. “He was born and raised in Raveltown, and was chosen as a Riser because of his service to the temple of Grecolus. He was a bit of a prodigy student there, and the priests looked favorably upon him. He served his squireship under Gregorovich the Second, the then heir to the Farchrist throne and the traditional Captain of the Knights.”

Brisbane understood this. Since the conception of the Knights of Farchrist, it had always been the heir to the throne who acted as Captain, leader of the Knights. His knighthood was usually granted at birth, but still had to serve a token squireship at the proper age. At the current time, Gregorovich IV sat on the throne and his son, Gregorovich V, was Captain of the Knights.

The dwarf continued. “Now, although the Knights formally consider themselves a happy brotherhood, there were and still are personal conflicts and rivalries among them. Throughout his squireship and knighthood, your grandfather carried on a rivalry with Gregorovich the Third. They competed with one another in all their duties, but unlike some others in the Order, their competition was born out of the purest friendship and love between the two men. They felt that constantly challenging each other only increased their skill and bettered their values. When the Peasant King died in Farchrist Year fifty-eight, Gregorovich the Second became King and it was Gregorovich the Third’s turn to assume the position of Captain. His first official act in that office was to name Brisbane his second-in-command, Commander of the Knights of Farchrist.”

Brisbane knew that his grandfather had held this rank, but he did not know of his close friendship with the then heir to the throne. It explained much of how his grandfather could rise from a small peasant boy to perhaps the most famous Knight of the realm.

“It was at this time,” Shortwhiskers said, “that I entered the picture. The Kingdom of Farchrist began formal relations with the dwarven nation to which my clan belonged in the mountains not far from the plateau on which Farchrist Castle stood. I was chosen as an ambassador of my people and journeyed to the castle to meet with the King and his court. The reception my aides and I received was gracious, and we began to discuss what our people could do for each other. We spoke of trading goods—our metals for their agriculture, for example—and mostly of things my clan had anticipated and were ready to comply with. But the King surprised us with one request for which we were completely unprepared.”

Brisbane took a moment to look at Roystnof. The wizard seemed to be staring off into the distance at nothing in particular. Brisbane returned his attention to the dwarf.

“You see,” Shortwhiskers said, “Gregorovich the Second grew up in the aftermath of Dalanmire’s attack in Farchrist Year four. His young and impressionable eyes had seen the years of feeble harvests that the dragon-burned fields produced. He had seen the rubble-filled streets of Raveltown and the slow rebuilding done by the over-worked peasants. He had seen the poverty, hunger, disease, and despair that followed Dalanmire’s attack. But most of all, he had seen how the dragon tax took a gigantic bite out of what little his people managed to collect from year to year. He had made an oath to himself at a very young age; an oath that, when he had the power to do so, he would see the evil lizard who had cause so much pain skinned alive.”

Brisbane looked again at Roystnof. He was still staring off into the distance.

“The King wanted the dwarves,” Shortwhiskers continued in a quiet voice, “to guide an armed party through the Crimson Mountains and across the Desert of Despair to Dragon’s Peak, where the party would destroy Dalanmire.”

“Nog,” Roystnof interrupted, pointing into the distance. “Look. Atop that hill at ten o’clock.”

Shortwhiskers and Brisbane looked in the direction Roystnof had indicated. Brisbane saw two fuzzy figures standing atop a hill ahead of them. He could make out no finer details.”

“Ogres,” Shortwhiskers said. “And we’re upwind of them. If we can see them…”

“…they can smell us,” Roystnof finished for him.

Roystnof put down his pack and his staff. He brought out his red book and began flipping through it. Shortwhiskers drew his sword and tightened his grip on his shield. Brisbane looked off into the distance and saw the two figures quickly descend the hill in their direction.

“What’ll we do?” Brisbane said.

“Stay put,” Shortwhiskers said.

“What?!” Brisbane realized he was more than a little scared.

“Gil,” Roystnof said. “We cannot escape them. This is their country and they are much better at chasing than we are at running. We will stand atop this hill and wait for them to arrive. They will tire themselves running to us and, when they are within range, I will let one of them have it. The other I trust to Nog’s skill with his blade.”

Brisbane looked at Shortwhiskers.

“No problem,” the dwarf said.

“You just stay behind us,” Roystnof told Brisbane. “Now don't interrupt. I have to prepare this spell.”

Brisbane took his place behind his companions like a frustrated child. He stared out over the dwarf’s head and saw the approaching ogres top a nearer hill and rush down its other side. Now he could see that they were big creatures, much taller than he and burly as well. Dressed in tattered skins and furs, they were covered in yellowish-brown hair. Roystnof had put his book down and now had his eyes closed and was mumbling to himself. The dwarf was standing still.

“Don’t you have a crossbow or something?” Brisbane asked Shortwhiskers.

“No,” he said curtly.

The ogres were closing the distance rapidly. They crested the hill directly adjacent to the one Brisbane stood upon. Their hair covered their heads and backs while their chests were bare with dull yellow warty bumps covering them. Each carried a massive wooden club in its hand and their features were twisted and grotesque.

Suddenly, Roystnof flipped open his eyes and threw his arms into the air. Red lightning crackled out of his fingertips, shooting through the warm air and striking one of the ogres in the center of its warty chest. There, the lightning exploded with a flash that knocked the ogre off its feet. When the smoke cleared, one ogre stood over the crumpled form of its comrade. The remaining ogre let out a roar and rushed its attackers.

It seemed like the ogre was upon them in an instant. It charged at the dwarf with ferocity, and Brisbane saw just how large the creature actually was. It made him look like a child and Shortwhiskers like an infant. Brisbane did not see how the dwarf could stop it.

The ogre charged up the hill impossibly fast. Shortwhiskers set himself against the charge, swung his blade at the proper time, and cut deeply into the abdomen of the monster. The ogre, however, did not stop. It had its club held high as it ran over the dwarf, trampling Shortwhiskers under its feet. It was upon Roystnof in a second, who quickly bent down to pick up his staff. The ogre brought its club down on the back of the wizard and Roystnof crumbled flat under the blow.

Brisbane’s short sword was in his hand as if by its own volition. Brisbane did not have any time to think. He knew only two short and sudden things. One: if he did not stop this ogre, all three of them were going to die and, two: the short sword Shortwhiskers had lent him felt good in his hand. Brisbane leapt into battle with shocking grasp the last thing on his mind.

The ogre lifted its club and swung it sideways at Brisbane’s head. Brisbane ducked under the heavy wood, and then sprang up, burying his sword right below the protruding chin of the ogre. Blackish-red ogre blood rained down upon him. The creature had swung too hard, expecting to connect with Brisbane’s head, and was now losing its balance. It began to fall over as Brisbane pulled his weapon out and took another swing at the ogre’s neck.

Roystnof, although hurt, was still wise and able enough to scramble out of the way of the falling ogre. Shortwhiskers was shaken, and was just regaining his feet as Brisbane chopped into the side of the ogre’s neck. The ogre crashed to the ground and Brisbane brought his blade down a third and final time on the creature’s neck, this time severing its head. Brisbane kicked the grotesque thing and it bounced and thumped down the hill.

Brisbane stood at the crest of the hill with the short sword clenched in a white-knuckled fist. His arms and the front of his leather jerkin were soaked rich in ogre blood. Shortwhiskers stood on one side and Roystnof sat in the sparse grass on the other, both silently watching him.

Brisbane shook off a chill and crouched down beside Roystnof. “Are you hurt?” he asked.

“Yes,” was the only reply the mage could manage.

Brisbane helped him off with his shirt and he laid the wizard face down on the grass. His back was already black and blue, and by poking and pressing Brisbane judged that no bones had been broken. Shortwhiskers was scratched and sore, but no worse for the trampling he had received. His biggest injury may have been to his pride. He rummaged through the bags on his mule and, when he returned, he had a small jar of ointment with him.

“Something Allison gave me some time ago,” the dwarf explained as he rubbed the salve on Roystnof’s bruises. “It’ll ease the pain and quicken the healing.”

“What happened, Gil?” Roystnof’s voice was muffled by a face full of grass.

“What do you mean?” Brisbane said.

“I think he means,” Shortwhiskers said, “that not only did you forget to use the spell he taught you, but you used my short sword like you and it were old friends.”

Confronted with it, Brisbane thought about what he had done for the first time. It puzzled him even more than it did his friends. He had never used such a weapon before. Thinking back, he saw that the use of arms was the only part of his knightly raising to have been left out. But he had used the short sword like he had been trained in its use. The hilt of the blade had felt not only good in his hand, it had felt reassuring. Like it was all he needed to make sense out of things and separate right from wrong.

These thoughts made him shudder a little, and then he remembered Roystnof and Shortwhiskers waiting for his reply. Brisbane lamely shrugged it off as a heat-of-the-moment thing and quickly excused himself to wash the gore off himself in the river.

Brisbane went down to the Mystic, removed his leather jerkin, and began washing it and himself in the cool water. Most of the ogre blood was washing off his armor, but it was going to leave a stain between the metal plates. Brisbane started to reflect on his actions again. He had murdered. Regardless of whether he had done it by sword or by spell, he had taken a life. His knightly disciplines told him this was wrong except in self-defense or against inherently evil creatures. Brisbane knew his situation was a case of both of these conditions, but these rationalizations were not enough to account for how unremorseful he actually felt. If, at any time in the past, someone had given him the hypothetical kill or be killed situation, and had wanted to know what Brisbane would do in such a circumstance, Brisbane would have said that he would protect himself the best he could and, if the death of his opponent resulted, he would feel strong pity but a wavering justification about it. But now that the hypothetical case had occurred, Brisbane was shocked to find himself feeling no pity at all—only strong justification. What he had achieved with his blade had been right. The ogre had deserved its fate and Brisbane was forced to admit that he had only been too glad to deal the cards.

Shortwhiskers called to him from atop the hill. Brisbane threw on his dripping jerkin and scrambled back up the hill. Roystnof was now clothed and stood stiffly next to the dwarf, leaning heavily on his staff. The three looked each other over for several silent moments.

Finally, Shortwhiskers spoke. “Well, Gil. I don’t know what it was that possessed you to fight like you did, but if I had any doubts to your heritage before, you and this ogre have helped me to overcome them.”

Brisbane smiled, feeling oddly proud of his true family name. He looked at the wizard with caring eyes.

“Yes,” Roystnof said murkily. “You have certainly shown what color blood runs in your veins.”

Brisbane looked pleadingly at Roystnof, like a scolded pup.

Roystnof shook his head and placed a hand on Brisbane’s shoulder. “No, Gil. You did what you had to do. You can do no less.”

They resumed their march south after the dwarf searched the bodies of the ogres, first the headless one at their feet and then the charred form on the next hill. He turned up a handful of gold pieces and a small opal gem. Shortwhiskers put them all in a sack on his pack mule, saying that he would keep them safe.

As they walked, Brisbane tried to get Shortwhiskers to continue his story about Brisbane’s family history, but the dwarf gruffly said that he had told enough of it for one day. He reminded Brisbane not to pester him about it and walked on in silence.

Brisbane spent most of the rest of the day wondering if ogres had a god to whom they prayed.

Monday, November 29, 2010

God and Man

“Let me tell you. The proofs that God does not exist are very strong, but in lots of people they are not as strong as the feeling that He does.”
John Steinbeck, East of Eden (Adam Trask)

Monday, November 22, 2010

After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945 by Ben Shephard

This was a very sad and sometimes painful book to read. I picked it up a few years ago in Germany, at the “gift shop” at Bergen Belsen concentration camp. Visiting the camp (or what’s left of it) was a moving experience, as was reading this book—which describes the liberation of the camp by British soldiers and medical personnel in the spring of 1945. The conditions just before that liberation were grim, to say the least.

The camp became yet more overcrowded, the population growing from 15,257 at the end of 1944 to 44,000 by the end of March 1945, even though some 18,000 people had died there in that month alone. ‘We are engulfed in our own stinking sea of germs, lice and fleas, and everything around us is putrid and slimy,’ [Hanna] Levy-Hass [a Yugoslav Communist imprisoned at Belsen] wrote. ‘We are literally lying on top of each other, we provide a perfect breeding-ground for the lice.’ In February 1945, an epidemic of typhus broke out. There began to be reports of cannibalism among the inmates: of corpses being cut open and organs such as the liver extracted and eaten.

Indeed, just reading these descriptions, to say nothing of transcribing them here, makes me uncomfortable. I hesitate, not wanting to slide into objectification and voyeurism as a self-defense mechanism. I wonder if I experience something akin to the war photographers who visited the camp, witnessing things through their camera lens that would be intolerable without the interposition of some recording device between themselves and that awful reality.

For the army cameraman, it helped to concentrate on the technical problems of filming. ‘It was OK as long as you were looking through the lens,’ one said later—though this technique didn’t work with the great photographer George Rodger who was overcome by shame while taking a picture of a man dying at Belsen (for Life magazine). Rodger put his camera away and tried to help. He never photographed war again.

The camera was not enough to shield Rodger, but some were able to make the technique work—and it is important that they were, because there should be some record of these events.

The British were sickened and revolted. ‘The things I saw completely defy description,’ Colonel Taylor’s deputy, Major Ben Barnett wrote. ‘There are no words in the English language which can give a true impression of the ghastly horror of this camp.’ Countless others would say the same thing over the next weeks—that Belsen defied language. But it wasn’t just a matter of finding words: for Major Barnett the thing itself was beyond comprehension. ‘I find it hard even now to get into focus all these horrors, my mind is really quite incapable of taking in everything I saw because it was all so completely foreign to everything I had previously believed or thought possible,’ he added.

That really underscores why the photographers had to take those pictures, why the authors have had to write the books, and, in my own small way, why I have to transcribe here the things that shocked and sickened me. These things happened. They’re not just horror stories. They are a record of just how callous and malevolent we can be to each other, and it’s something that should never be forgotten.

The tales of the medical personnel who faced the impossible task of helping so many thousands of people so close to death are some of the most heartbreaking. There was a cruel but necessary logic that had to be applied.

Military triage divides battlefield casualties into three categories—those who will inevitably die, those who can be returned to the front and those who will live but will not fight again—and concentrates resources on the lightly wounded while ignoring the dying. Similarly, at Belsen, ‘One had to get used early to the idea that the individual just did not count,’ [Lt. Colonel Mervin] Gonin [the officer commanding the 11th Light Field Ambulance and a general practitioner] recalled. ‘One knew that five hundred a day were dying and that five hundred a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect. It was, however, not easy to watch a child choking to death from diphtheria when you knew that a tracheotomy and nursing would save it.’

Belsen was not initially a death camp. It was a place where the Third Reich wanted to gather all the inmates from across the German camp system who might have some financial or political value as hostages and keep them caged but alive. As such, there were no gas chambers or incinerators at Belsen. But as the resources of the Reich became stretched thinner and thinner by the Allied war effort, the prisoners at Belsen were left alone in their huts to slowly starve to death. Thousands had already died by the time the camp was liberated, the prisoners themselves piling up the dead bodies in the corners of their compound. The medical students who were sent into these huts to separate the nearly dead from the nearly living had a harrowing time of it.

No one forgot the moment of first entering ‘their’ hut. ‘We walked in, held our nose, walked round, walked out again, looked at each other and said “Where do we start?”’ Ian Proctor remembered, ‘It was full of the most emaciated people I have ever seen in my life. There was supposed to be a loo at the far end but they couldn’t get up to go to it. It was almost up to the top of one’s boots in excreta. One just stumped about in it. People by now were too weak to use the lavatory and were just lying there in their own faeces and urine which dripped down from one bunk to the next—quite appalling.’ Writing in 1945, Alan MacAuslan caught more precise details:

‘We took a look round—there was faeces all over the floor—the majority of people having diarrhoea. I was standing aghast in the midst of all this filth trying to get used to the smell which was a mixture of post-mortem room, a sewer, sweat, and foul pus, when I heard a scrabbling on the floor. I looked down in the half light and saw a woman crouching at my feet. She had black matted hair, well populated and her ribs stood out as though there were nothing between them, her arms were so thin that they were horrible. She was defecating, but she was so weak that she could not life her buttocks from the floor and, as she had diarrhoea, the liquid yellow stools bubbled over her thighs.’

Those who were selected for care were removed the filthy huts—sometimes forcibly over the cries of those who did not wish to be separated from relatives or friends who were too sick to be saved—and taken to a mobile bath unit constructed to efficiently wash hundreds of inmates every day.

In this ‘human laundry,’ each patient was carried by a German medical orderly to one of the tables and then washed, shaved and dusted with DDT [standard treatment for typhus at the time] by two nurses from the German Military Hospital, supervised by two German doctors under a British officer. Hair that was long and thick or heavily infested with lice was clipped off, although the British relented somewhat when they saw ‘the deleterious psychological effect this had on women who were well enough to realise what was going on.’ [Lt. Colonel James] Johnston admitted that most of the inmates were ‘not really in a fit state to withstand such treatment’—it was ‘not funny having soap rubbed into a painful ulcer’ and ‘very painful to those with severe conditions such as bed-sores.’ But there was no alternative. Of the 14,000 people who eventually passed through the ‘laundry,’ only two died. Some of the fitter female inmates objected to the immodesty of the procedure but most were too apathetic to care.

‘Going into that place, who could forget it?’ wrote Molly Sylva Jones of the Red Cross. ‘Living corpses, skeletons covered with parchment like skin, discoloured by filth and neglected sores lay on the bath tables. Mostly they lay inert, occasionally they moaned as they were touched by the nurses. They lay with open eyes sunk deep into hollow sockets, eyes which registered little, save fear and apprehension, mainly they were expressionless.’

After the laundry they were taken to a makeshift hospital, where many of them “woke up” for the first time in years.

Anka Fischer was lying stark naked on ‘a large 2-storey mountain of dead bodies’ when the British entered Belsen. ‘I was unconscious at the time,’ she wrote in November 1945, ‘and cannot remember the event.’ Soldiers tried to resuscitate people from the pile—or simply tried to move it—and, when she showed signs of life, she was taken to hospital, and eventually emerged from the coma, still weak and sick with typhus, weighing only 32 kg. She was kept in hospital for nine weeks. Rena Salt remembered coming into the hospital in a bed ‘with white linen. That was just heaven. You could stretch out for the first time in months.’ Her first meal ‘consisted of a quarter slice of white bread, topped with a teaspoonful of stewed apples. And the taste is still in my mouth today.’

There were, of course, reasons why the inmates acted this way—why they were practically comatose. For many if not most, the humanity had been beaten and starved out of them, and they had retreated into themselves in order to survive. Those who were temporarily left behind in the huts still acted as if civilization had abandoned them. As food began to be distributed, the British appointed leaders within each hut, believing they would make sure that everything was shared fairly and that the weakest inmates would get their portion. It didn’t work.

The British had expected to find grateful victims, not ‘beings come from another world’; when they had to intervene in wild brawls between the inmates, and discovered that no one could be relied on to distribute food and everyone was purely interested in their own personal profit, they had completely lost faith in the prisoners:

‘They understood nothing about it; it seemed to them that they were looking after a zoo inhabited by savage beasts, with dominant species and the mass of the dying, an antediluvian zoo where it was as natural to dominate as to die.’

Indeed, the psychological destruction the Nazis had wrought was in some ways more devastating than the physical.

Saving the lives of the Belsen inmates was only part of the story; their minds too had to be rescued. By the end of May 1945, the British, ‘aided by the fine summer weather and the ready-made facilities of the Panzer Training School’ [a nearby institution where they had set-up their hospital], had, in Derrick Sington’s words, ‘carried out the immediate task of feeding, re-clothing and re-housing the inmates of Belsen.’ But there still remained ‘the tasks of psychological restoration, of rebuilding confidence, of making up for years of education lost, of re-accustoming 15,000 people to enjoyment in work, of teaching many of them to trust and respect authority rather than defy and outwit it, of persuading them to regard regulations and rules as benevolent and not diabolical. Obviously nothing more than a beginning could be made with this difficult work.’

It was work that would continue for years, in some cases, for the rest of the survivors’ lives. What may be equally sad is the way so many survivors seem to drop out of history after just a few years. Some stayed in Germany, some were accepted by Sweden, some emigrated to the new Israel or to America, but most seem to drift into the undocumented population of the world like ghosts, doing little to help us remember what had happened to them.

Monday, November 15, 2010

God and Man

“Clearly I miss Him, having been brought up in religion. But now a man must be responsible to himself.”
Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls (Anselmo)

Monday, November 8, 2010

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

I had high hopes for this one.

Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.

As time went by our need to fight for the ideal increased to an unquestioning possession, riding with spur and rein over our doubts. Willy-nilly it became a faith. We had sold ourselves into its slavery, manacled ourselves together in its chain-gang, bowed ourselves to serve its holiness with all our good and ill content. The mentality of ordinary human slaves is terrible—they have lost the world—and we had surrendered, not body alone, but soul to the overmastering greed of victory. By our own act we were drained of morality, of volition, of responsibility, like dead leaves in the wind.

Those are the opening two paragraphs, and it’s as if Lawrence in speaking directly to my generation and my society over the vast difference of years and miles, intent on providing a cautionary tale about the inevitable legacy of empire, of the fruitless pursuit of the ideal instead of the human.

And the insights into the different cultures and the mindsets of what we now call the Middle East come with fair regularity as in the first few chapters Lawrence describes the stage on which his narrative with be played and the actors that will drive it.

In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.

This is on page 38, and with turns of phrase like “doubt, our modern crown of thorns,” I thought I was going to have no problem getting through the next 634.

But I was wrong. After such a promising beginning, Lawrence’s narrative decays into a seemingly endless recitation of people, desert places, army movements, and battle plans. It would help if I knew more about the era and, especially, the people being described. I mean, I saw Lawrence of Arabia once, and remember being confused by even it, so imagine my surprise at finding the book just as inscrutable. Usually, the book manages to explain so much more.

I called it quits after page 168. Before getting there, I found this interesting pearl about leadership.

A weariness of the desert was the living always in company, each of the party hearing all that was said and seeing all that was done by the others day and night. Yet the craving for solitude seemed part of the delusion of self-sufficiency, a factitious making-rare of the person to enhance its strangeness in its own estimation. To have privacy, as Newcombe and I had, was ten thousand times more restful than the open life, but the work suffered by the creation of such a bar between the leaders and men. Among the Arabs there were no distinctions, traditional or natural, except the unconscious power given a famous sheikh by virtue of his accomplishment; and they taught me that no man could be their leader except he ate the ranks’ food, wore their clothes, lived level with them, and yet appeared better in himself.

Perhaps if there had been more of these tidbits between pages 38 and 157 I would have kept slogging through the rest for them. Absent those pillars of wisdom, and as I grow ever older, alas, I find myself more and more thinking about all the other books I’d like to read. Maybe I’ll come back to this one at the end.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Chapter Four

from STONE TO FLESH
FARCHRIST TALES - BOOK ONE

Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

A son was born to Gregorovich Farchrist on the same night that Dalanmire reminded the new regime of the reason for the dragon tax. On that night, the shrieks of labor were drowned out by the shrieks of lightning fire that burned from the mouth of that ancient lizard. The cries of the newborn were overwhelmed by the cries of the dying in the city below. The castle was spared, but the City Below the Castle was destroyed, and the loss of life was horrendous. The Peasant King first named his son Gregorovich Farchrist II, and then reluctantly reinstituted the dragon tax on his unfortunate kingdom.

+ + +

They decided to spend another day in Queensburg. Roystnof roused the others early and, as Shortwhiskers went out to buy supplies, Roystnof and Brisbane sat down with the wizard’s slim red book.

Roystnof told his pupil that each spell required an exact sequence of either vocal sounds or hand movements—and that some needed material components as well—to spark the magic into the proper channel. Brisbane had already had some experience with this idea through the few cantrips he could cast, but Roystnof said the restrictions on the parameters were much more stringent with more powerful spells. The sounds had to be perfect and exact, and the movements had to be done the same each time.

The spell Brisbane would spend the rest of the morning trying to master was called shocking grasp, and when performed correctly, was designed to send a large amount of electrical energy through its victim’s body at the touch of the spell caster. Roystnof said it was a good offensive spell, and a good one to learn first, for it had the power to kill most humanoids at a single touch.

Shocking grasp required no material components, but had rigorous verbal and somatic components. Brisbane’s throat quickly went dry from trying to copy the crackling noise of lightning Roystnof modeled for him time and time again. For the hand movements, Brisbane had to start with his fists together and his index fingers extended, touching only at the tips. He was to concentrate on the spot where his fingers met and start his crackling noise. Slowly bringing his fingers apart should cause a bright blue spark to hang thread-like between them. After that, the next thing he touched would have a jolt of electricity sent though it powerful enough to stop a human heart.

Shortwhiskers returned with the provisions and equipment when Brisbane was starting to get a small jumping spark between his fingers. The dwarf unloaded himself and, seeing that the others were still busy, discreetly left.

It was well past noon when Brisbane finally got it. He gave a wooden chair enough juice to turn it black. He sat down on his bed and wiped his brow.

“I’m exhausted,” Brisbane said.

“Magic does that,” Roystnof nodded. “It draws from the body. That’s where all your power comes from. Eventually, you’ll learn to tap the power of your mind. That kind of magic is much more powerful, but much harder to control.”

“You can cast spells with the power of your mind,” Brisbane said. “Can’t you?”

Roystnof smiled. “How about some lunch?”

Roystnof fixed them a small meal as Brisbane rested. They ate in the silence that exists between two friends who can talk to each other without speaking. When they had finished their repast, Brisbane took off his boots and lay on his bed, hands folded beneath his head. Roystnof began to study more of his red book in a chair near the window.

“Tell me about Roundtower,” Brisbane said as he closed his eyes.

“What would you like to know?”

Brisbane watched the colors roll around on the insides of his eyelids. “Well, I don’t know. What’s he like?”

Roystnof paused for only a moment. “Ignatius Roundtower is a very proud man whose skill with his sword is better than anyone else I have ever seen.”

“Proud?” Brisbane asked. “What do you mean?”

“He hopes to become a Knight of Farchrist one day. The reason he started traveling with Nog and later myself was to gain experience in combat and to test himself.”

“Test himself?”

“Yes,” Roystnof said. “To test his courage and the strength of his convictions, I suppose.”

“That seems unusual,” Brisbane said, his eyes still closed.

“Why?” Roystnof asked.

“Well, to become a Knight of Farchrist, you have to be of the right social standing and you have to be chosen by an existing Knight to serve as his Squire for a period of at least three years. It’s my understanding that they frown upon outsiders and mercenary types. No offense Roy, but the knighthood won’t look too well upon him if they discover he’s had dealings with wizards. Knights are sworn to serve the King and the will of Grecolus. You know how they must feel about magic and those who practice it.”

That started Brisbane thinking. He had just learned a magic spell. He hated to think of what he might have just done to this mother’s dream of him one day becoming a Knight. By those standards, he was now a servant of Damaleous. He had performed simple cantrips before, but Brisbane had considered those just tricks, little more than sleight-of-hand. Shocking grasp, however, was magic. There was no rationalizing around that. Even now, he could hear Otis lecturing him in his head.

“I suspect,” Roystnof replied, “that Ignatius realizes these facts, but is unwilling to admit their consequences to himself. Although, I have known him for some time now, and it is clear to me that his faith in his god is very strong and very pure. Ideally, that should be all one needs.”

“But you haven’t seen him in six years,” Brisbane said.

“This is true.”

Brisbane lay quietly for a while and Roystnof went back to his book. Brisbane began pondering his beliefs and he found them much more eroded than he would have thought possible. He could still remember his younger years when he had accepted all he had been told as the truth and had held it dear to his heart. But now he looked over all those wonderful truths and found them lacking. Even if it were all true, it was somehow not enough for him now. He felt that there was still something missing, that that could not possibly be all there was. That a timeless, ageless being named Grecolus created the entire universe in which he placed a wholly imperfect world where evil tortured good. Or perhaps, from the dwarven perspective, where philanthropy was conquered by greed. That in this bitter and ugly world, where only the strongest survived, one was expected to adhere to the ethical considerations and moral obligations of a creator who did not make himself visible, in order to secure a place in the heavens for an eternal life of bliss—while those who bested, spurned, and beat you in your short earthly life burned before your vindicated eyes in the fiery hells of Damaleous. Brisbane had been afraid to say it aloud earlier in his life, but to him, it all seemed so vengeful, and just a little bit childish.

Brisbane must have drifted off with these thoughts, for when he awoke the room was dark. In one corner, Roystnof and Shortwhiskers sat playing cards around a small candle. The dwarf was grumbling. He was obviously losing.

“Serves me right. Playing cards with a master of sleight-of-hand.”

Roystnof noticed that Brisbane had awoken. He motioned to Shortwhiskers and the dwarf turned in his chair to look at the young man.

“Put your boots on, Gil,” Shortwhiskers said. “We’ve got an errand to run before sundown.”

Brisbane noticed that the shades were drawn, but they were aglow with sunlight. He nodded to the dwarf, sat up on the edge of the bed, and began lacing his boots.

“What kind of errand?” Brisbane asked.

“Well,” Shortwhiskers said, “unlike your sorcerer friend here, I don’t think one little spell is going to be enough to protect you. We’re going to the armory.”

Brisbane finished tying his bootstrings. He looked up at Roystnof as if to get his permission to go with the dwarf. He had seen Shortwhiskers’ suit of chainmail tied to his pack mule, but he knew Roystnof had no such protection. It somehow seemed that he, as Roystnof’s would-be apprentice, shouldn’t wear any armor either.

Roystnof only nodded his bearded face.

Brisbane got up and left with the dwarf. They quickly found themselves on the busy streets of Queensburg. The day-long festival of Whiteshine was still going strong, and Brisbane could not help but think with some shame that he had just spent Grecolus’ holiest day studying magic and learning how to cast a spell. On the streets, Brisbane saw large groups of people enjoying the entertainment provided by jugglers and traveling acrobatic groups. The sun was nearing the eastern horizon and, within an hour, it would be gone for another night and the festival would be over. It seemed odd to Brisbane that a festival held in honor of the moon Grecolum would start and end with the sun, but that was the way it had always been done. Brisbane had never been to Queensburg before, but Shortwhiskers seemed to know where they were going.

They soon arrived at a small building that had a faded and weatherbeaten sign hung over the door. ‘Royale Armory,’ it declared with flaking paint. Brisbane was surprised it was open on the day of the festival, but he supposed some were worse off than others. The pair went inside and were greeted by a large man with a curly red beard and bulging forearms. He showed them all types of armor, but seemed disappointed when the dwarf said they needed something his young friend could walk out with.

“I usually make the armor custom-made to fit,” the man said. “Takes about a week, but practically eliminates chaffing.”

“Sorry,” Shortwhiskers said. “But we’re leaving town tomorrow.”

“Shame,” the man said. “It’ll be hard to find something laying around that’ll fit a lad as big as him.”

Less than an hour later Brisbane left the shop wearing a leather smock that gathered at the waist and was studded with dozens of metal plates. Shortwhiskers had paid fifteen pieces of gold for it. Brisbane promised he would pay the dwarf back when he came into some money, but Shortwhiskers curtly told him to forget it. They began to walk back to the inn.

“You’ll need a weapon, too,” the dwarf said. “You can use one of mine. Ignatius always said I was a walking arsenal anyway.”

Shortwhiskers went suddenly silent and stared at his feet. Brisbane suspected the dwarf felt uncertain of what lay ahead for his friend. He felt he should change the subject if he could.

“You said you know where this Stargazer woman lives?” Brisbane said.

Shortwhiskers stopped and looked up at Brisbane. “Yes…”

“I would very much like to go there and see her practice this art of hers. I’ve heard about mystics who claim they can heal by divine power. I’d like to see it for myself.”

“Allison is no mystic,” Shortwhiskers said.

Brisbane did not allow the dwarf’s tone to sidetrack him. “Would you take me there?”

Shortwhiskers searched Brisbane’s face. “Want to see her practice her art, huh?”

Brisbane nodded.

Shortwhiskers shrugged. “Follow me,” he said.

The dwarf led Brisbane out of town towards the Shadowhorn Forest. They went about a mile out of town, and there, nestled under the outer trees of the Shadowhorn, was a pair of small cabins. One was dark, but from the other came the powerful glow of lamplight. Both cabins were made of felled timber, were single-storied, and had thatched roofs. Shortwhiskers said Stargazer would be in the lighted cabin, tending the sick, and he led Brisbane to the doorway.

Inside the cabin it was all one room, with a dozen cots lining the walls. All were empty except for one at the far end of the cabin. In it lay the figure of an old man and, sitting on a small stool next to the cot with her back to the door, was the honey-haired Allison Stargazer.

“Allison.” Shortwhiskers’ voice sounded hoarse.

She turned and when she saw the dwarf she jumped up. She bent down and said a few quick words to her patient and ran down to the door.

Brisbane watched as she called out Shortwhiskers’ first name, and as she crouched down to give the dwarf a warm hug. She stood a little under five and a half feet and had a slight frame. She wore a simple blue and white dress that dropped to the middle of her calves and her golden honey hair was pinned behind her ears, falling to her shoulders. She was thin but had a full bosom and sturdy hips. Her face was an angel’s dream. Bright, wide, emerald eyes dominated her sharp features and her complexion was pink and full of health.

Brisbane had never seen anyone so lovely.

“Nog Shortwhiskers,” she said as she broke the embrace and stood up. “What have you been doing with yourself?”

“This and that,” Shortwhiskers said, obviously embarrassed over Stargazer’s show of affection. “I was just passing through town and thought, well, you know.”

She smiled. “How are your ribs?”

Shortwhiskers patted his flank. “Good as new.”

Her smile broadened. “Good, good,” she said, catching Brisbane out of the corner of her eye and turning towards him. “And who’s your young friend, Nog?”

“His name is Gilbert Parkinson,” Shortwhiskers said. “He’s from the village of Scalt.”

“Parkinson?” Stargazer said disbelievingly, her eyes studying Brisbane up and down. “He reminds me of someone else.”

“Yes,” Shortwhiskers said quickly. “I thought so too, at first but—”

“Who?” Brisbane said abruptly, cutting off his friend’s comments. “Who do I remind you of?” He had caught the look in Stargazer’s face and, having seen it, he suddenly wanted to know who she was comparing him to. At one time in his life, Brisbane would have felt no such urgency. Once, he would have done everything he could to convince people him name truly was Gilbert Parkinson. But the look on Stargazer’s face, and its similarity to the look Shortwhiskers had worn before naming him a Brisbane in Roystnof’s study, had suddenly transformed his thinking on the subject.

Before answering, however, Stargazer turned to Shortwhiskers, seeking some kind of approval which the dwarf gave with a nod of his head.

“Brisbane,” Stargazer said simply. “You remind me of the Knights named Brisbane. You have a very strong resemblance, almost as if you were part of that family.”

“That’s because I am,” Brisbane said, his impromptu confession sending tingles of excitement rushing up and down his spinal column. “I am the bastard son of Sir Gildegarde Brisbane the Second and am named for him. But how did you recognize me? I have lived my life in Scalt and no one there has ever expected I was anyone but Otis Parkinson’s adopted son.”

Again, before answering Stargazer checked for some silent guidance from Shortwhiskers. This time, the dwarf gave her a slight shake of his head. Brisbane noticed her looking at the dwarf, but he did not see Shortwhiskers’ covert signals.

“I grew up in Raveltown,” Stargazer said, seeming to collect herself. “One does not grow up there and grow easy with your family name. One either respects it or abhors it.”

“And you?” Brisbane said.

This time, Stargazer did not take her eyes off Brisbane. “I respect it.”

A groan came from the elderly man in the last bunk. Stargazer quickly turned and went down to the man. Brisbane and Shortwhiskers slowly followed. The pair stood at the foot of the cot while the woman crouched beside the man. He was thin and frail and soaked with sweat. His eyes were closed and he seemed to be in a world of his own, with pain as his only companion.

Stargazer brushed the man’s hair off his slick forehead. “His name is Skinner. Joseph Skinner. All his life he has been torturing his weak body with the drink. Alcohol.” She said the word with much distaste. “He comes in here when the festering sore he has for a liver hurts him badly enough. I do what I can to take away his pain, but he had damaged himself too much for me to truly heal him. I will help him get through tonight and next week he will stumble in here again, holding his side and coughing up blood.”

Skinner groaned louder this time and his legs jerked beneath the blanket. Stargazer gently put a hand over his eyes and began to sing quietly. She slowly pulled the blanket down to reveal Skinner’s thin body. She placed her other hand on his abdomen and began to sing louder.

Brisbane did not recognize the language, but the tune was soft and sad and her voice was that of a songbird. Brisbane looked at the man laid out before him while listening. Skinner’s ribs clearly showed through his pasty skin, his chest was a sunken valley filled with bracken-like hair, and his hips jutted out impossibly far. He looked skeletal, a shape from the grave. Brisbane began to feel very warm in the leather jerkin he still wore.

Stargazer sung on and began to rub Skinner’s concave belly. Slowly, he stopped jerking about and groaning. Her singing died down and she took her hands from him. A small amount of color had returned to his flesh and he lay still with his eyes closed.

Stargazer covered him again with the blanket. “He will sleep now. Come.”

She led them from that cabin to the next one. They entered a small living room with carpeting and overstuffed easy chairs.

“We really can’t stay,” Shortwhiskers said. “We have to get an early start in the morning.”

“Off again, Nog?” Stargazer said. “Aren’t you ever going to settle down?”

“Tried that once already,” the dwarf said, somewhat sullenly. “It didn’t work out.”

She smiled, a bit painfully, Brisbane thought.

“Are you going with him?” she suddenly asked Brisbane. “You’re already dressed for it.”

“Yes,” Brisbane said.

She shook her head. “Running off seeking your fortunes. You’d be wiser to follow your forefathers and seek to become a Knight. The right family is more than half the battle, and you’ve got the right family.”

Stargazer did not look much older than Brisbane, but as she said those words to Brisbane she sounded years his senior. Brisbane had no immediate response for her, just staring at her for some time and feeling empty inside for a reason he did not know, a reason he would not know for some time to come. Stargazer caught his pained look, and her brow lost all of the stern wrinkles it had worn as she had given her advice, and returned to a perfect smoothness. Her emerald eyes caught the fading sunlight from the windows and flashed it across Brisbane’s worried face.

“You look so sad,” she whispered too softly for Brisbane to hear.

“Well,” Shortwhiskers said, also not hearing Stargazer’s words. “It was really good to see you again, Allison.”

Brisbane and Stargazer locked eyes for a moment longer and then she stumbled away from his gaze when the pause after the dwarf’s words became embarrassingly long.

“Yes,” she said as she bent down to give Shortwhiskers another hug. “Don’t stay away so long this time.”

“I won’t,” Shortwhiskers promised.

She broke the embrace and stood up in front of Brisbane. She reached up and placed her hand on his cheek. “I hope you return safely with Nog.”

Brisbane put his hand over hers, pressed it against his face, and then slowly drew it away. “I am glad we met, Allison Stargazer.”

“As am I, Gildegarde Brisbane.”

Shortwhiskers offered a final farewell and Brisbane left the cabin with him. Stargazer shut the door and they started back for Queensburg. They walked in silence for the entire trip.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Wandering Hill by Larry McMurtry

This is Book 2 of McMurtry’s Berrybender Narratives, the first of which was Sin Killer, which I listened to as an audiobook back in 2006. I liked Sin Killer, mostly because I saw it as a kind of homage to Cooper and his Leatherstocking Tales, seeing more than a little Natty Bumppo in the character of Jim Snow, the Sin Killer.

And there are pieces of that same storyline in The Wandering Hill. Near the beginning, after Jim slaps his wife Tasmin for cursing, we learn more about Jim’s upbringing, and why he is so rigid against sin of any kind.

Jim didn’t answer. He wished Tasmin could just be silent, and not always be spilling words out of her mouth at such a rate. Lengthy talk just made it harder for him [to] hold the simple articles of faith in his mind, the faith that Preacher Cockerell had beaten into him at an early age. Preacher Cockerell never hesitated: he took the horsehide whip to his own wife and children as readily as he took it to Jim. Sin was to be driven out and violence was the way to drive it. Sin was also constant; violence had to be constant too. Preacher Cockerell whipped in the morning, whipped in the noontide, whipped at night; when members of his congregation sent their unruly young to him, he whipped them too. Jim grew up fearing the whip but not doubting the justice. Before the morning meal and the evening, Preacher Cockerell read from the Holy Book, terrible passages about punishment, sin, hell, Lot’s wife, the whore of Babylon, wars and floods and banishment, all the punishments that man deserved because of his sinful nature. Preacher Cockerell even whipped himself, for he had fallen into adultery with the wife of Deacon Sylvester. For such a sin even the whippings had not been enough, so Jehovah sent the lightning bolt that fried Preacher Cockerell and turned him black; the same lightning bolt threw Maundey Cockerell and Jim Snow aside as if they were chaff from the grain. For three days Jim lay unmoving; he seemed to float in red water, though there was no water where he was. Even the Kaw was low that year. Maundey Cockerell lived, but her mind died, destroyed by the heavenly flash. From that time on Jim had felt it was his duty to punish sin, whenever he met it in the violent men of the West, red or white; the Indians feared him because of the ferocity of his attacks. He was particularly feared by the medicine men, because it was the heresy of their spells and potions that angered him most.

Which I was initially intrigued by because, as clich├ęd as the background may seem to be, it certainly provided a contrasting moral construct than the one Natty pursued in books like The Pathfinder. For the Sin Killer, evidently, moral action is driven by blind dogma and violence, not by any heightened understanding of the natural world and the forces that shape it. Upon reading this, I was excited to see how this moral guidance would play itself out, as Jim Snow and Tasmin Berrybender seemed destined to enact some kind of epic clash between moral understandings of the world they decided to co-inhabit as man and wife.

And then, even more interesting, was the character of Pomp Charbonneau (the historical infant that Sacagawea had birthed and carried with her on the famous expedition of Lewis and Clark, now grown into a young man and fictionalized for this series), who McMurtry seems ready to set in opposition to the hard and judgmental morality of the Sin Killer.

Though glad, of course, that Hugh Glass was alive, Pomp felt no inclination to join in the party. Tasmin, in her annoyance, had stated an awkward truth about him: he was not often lustful, and he had rarely been able to join in the spirit of any group celebration. The English girl stated clearly what he himself had never quite articulated: he stood apart, not hostile or critical of the lusts or greeds of others; his gaze contained no stiff judgments, as her husband the Sin Killer’s fierce look was apt to do. Pomp would have liked to love a woman, feel a brother to a man, and yet he never had—or at least, he hadn’t since the death of Sacagawea, his mother; and that had occurred when he was only a boy.

But neither of these promises is kept—at least not in this volume of Berrybender Narratives. Pomp Charbonneau and even Jim Snow are more like minor characters in the story that follows, spending most of their time away from the story’s main character, Tasmin. There’s a hint of a coming conflict at the very end of the novel, when Pomp is injured in a climactic Indian attack, and has to have an arrowhead removed via frontier surgery before he floats off toward death.

Pomp, drifting in deep and starless darkness, heard Tasmin speak softly in his ear, saying she was here, she was here; but he couldn’t answer. The easeful darkness held him in its lazy power; he floated downward, deeper and deeper into it, as the soaked leaf sinks slowly to the bottom of a pool, to a place deeper than light. Helpless as the leaf he sank and sank, until, instead of Tasmin’s voice, he heard, “Jean Baptiste…Jean Baptiste!” Then the darkness gave way to the soft light of dream, and there was Sacagawea, his mother, sitting quietly in a field of waving grass, as she had so many times in his dreams. Though her dark eyes welcomed him, the look on her face was grave.

As always in his dreams of Sacagawea, Pomp wanted to rush to her, to be taken in her arms, as he had been as a child; but he could not move. The rules of the dream were severe—old sadness, old frustration pricked him, even though dreams of his mother were the best dreams of all.

As usual, when she visited him in dreams, Sacagawea began to talk in low tones of things that had happened long ago.

“When we were on our way back from the great ocean I took you up to the top of those white cliffs that rise by the Missouri,” she said. “I wanted you to see the great herds, grazing far from the world of men; but you were a young boy then, not even weaned, and I held your hand so you wouldn’t step off the edge of life and go too soon to the Sky House, where we all have to go someday. Now that old Ute’s arrow has brought you to the edge of life again, but the woman who whispers to you wants to pull you back, as I pulled you back when you were young.”

Sacagawea was looking directly at him—Pomp wanted to ask her questions, and yet, as always in his dreams of his mother, he was gripped by a terrible muteness; he could ask no question, make no plea, though he knew that at any time the dream might fade and his mother be lost to him until he visited her in dreams again. With the fear that his dream was ending came a sadness so deep that Pomp did not want to wake up to life, and yet that was just what his mother was urging him to do—she wanted him to listen to Tasmin.

“I did not wean you until you had seen four summers,” Sacagawea told him. “My milk was always strong—I filled you with it so that you could live long and enjoy the world of men, the world I showed you when we stood together on the white cliffs. Obey the woman who whispers—it is not time for you to come to the Sky House yet…”

Then, with sad swiftness, his mother faded; where her face had been was Tasmin’s face, leaning close to his. Pomp tried to smile, but couldn’t, not yet. Even so, Tasmin’s eyes shone with tears of relief.

“There…it’s out—and he’s not bleeding much,” Father Geoffrin said. “I think our good Pomp can live now—if he wants to.”

Tasmin had been watching Pomp’s face closely. Her heart leapt when he opened his eyes.

“I’ll see that he wants to!” she said, overjoyed that her friend had lived.

Father Geoffrin—priest, surgeon, and cynic—raised an eyebrow.

“I expect you will, madame,” he said. “I expect you will.”

That’s how the book ends. The juxtaposition between Pomp’s mother and Tasmin is, of course, symbolic, but the Father Geoffrin’s allusion at the very end is fairly direct. It’s too bad that I’ll have to wait until Book 3 to see this confrontation of moral attitudes.

So if not that moral confict, what does The Wandering Hill focus on? Well, the wandering hill, for one.

“I guess I’ll stay with you,” he said, a little awkwardly—but Pomp seemed not to mind the awkwardness. He was staring at a small, conical hill about half a mile away. The hill was mostly bare, but had a gnarled tree—cedar, probably—on top, a single tree with a dusting of snow.

Pomp looked troubled.

“That hill looks familiar,” he said—“but it ought to be farther south. There’s a hill just like that down by Manuel Lisa’s old fort, where my mother is buried.”

Jim looked at the tree—it seemed to him that he had seen a hill remarkably similar to this one—hadn’t it been near the South Platte?

“Maybe it’s the wandering hill—they say you usually find it where there’s been killings,” Pomp said.

Jim had heard of the wandering hill several times—it was a heathenish legend that many tribes seemed to believe. The hill was said to be inhabited with short, fierce devils with large heads, who killed travelers with deadly arrows made of grass blades, which they could shoot great distances.

“If that’s the hill with the devils in it they’d have a hard time finding grass blades to shoot at us, with all this snow,” Jim said.

Pomp was still staring at the strange, bare little hill.

“My mother believed in the wandering hill,” he said. “She claimed to have seen it way off over the mountains somewhere—near the Snake River, I think.”

“Well, I thought I saw it once myself—on the South Platte,” Jim admitted. “What do you think?”

Pomp shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just don’t remember that particular hill being here the last time I came this way.”

If the novel hadn’t been named after it, this little section on the wandering hill may have gone unnoticed. But the title makes it stand out, and you begin to wonder what role the Indian legend is going to play in the narrative that follows.

The answer, surprisingly, is very little—until the very end, when the hill makes another appearance, convincing an Indian warrior that the English party traveling near it possesses some unknown kind of magic that is keeping the devils inside their hill. Magic of such power, he reasons, must be fought, and great honor would be bestowed on the warrior who could wrest it away from the English—and that prompts the attack in which Pomp is wounded.

In between these two events, there is nary a mention of the hill, making me wonder how relevant it really is to the story line.

There was only one other symbolic theme I stumbled across. It comes when the painter in the Berrybender party—George Catlin—is convinced to paint a nude portrait of Tasmin and another woman in the group, both exceedingly pregnant.

George Catlin scarcely noticed the incident, so absorbed was he in planning the composition; though idly suggested by Tasmin, it had now quite taken hold of his imagination. Motherhood, if delicately yet boldly executed, might be the canvas that would make his name. Perhaps it should be hung in some great building in Washington—the Capitol, perhaps. The more he thought about it, the more excited he became. The allegorical dimension should not, in his view, be ignored. Were not these two Englishwomen, after all, giving birth to Americans—and, by extension, to the new America itself? Would not they represent the newer, grander America even then being born in the West?

McMurtry is also an artist not likely to ignore the allegorical dimension of his work, and this passage and a few that follow is proof of it. The Berrybenders in the West are indeed an allegory of the new America being born, forged both out of the rugged frontier and overmastered by the self-assumed sophistication of English and, more broadly, European cultures. At one point Tasmin herself wonders which life would be best for her newborn son:

What did she want for Monty: the English life with its order and pattern, or the frontier life with its vast beauty and frequent danger?

Sadly, it’s a choice that the reader also has to make, as I don’t think that McMurtry has blended these ideas as well as he might’ve in his fiction. I’ll read the next volume in the series, but I won’t rush it to the top of my pile.