Tuesday, April 24, 2012

When This Cruel War Is Over by Thomas Fleming

This is a work of historical fiction that I think is trying to pass itself off as something more historical than fiction. The afterword makes mention of the novel’s characters as real people whose stories can only now be told because of the release of their personal papers, but I think that’s a con, because none of the people, texts, or foundations referenced stand up to Google scrutiny. But that’s okay. I can enjoy some misdirection with the best of them.

All in all, it’s an engaging story about people in Indiana and Kentucky near the end of the American Civil War who are conspiring to create a “Western Confederacy” to secede from the Union and the Confederacy and force an end to the war. Fleming is first a historian, so he does a good job grounding his characters and his story in the real issues of customs of the day. Unfortunately, he is second an author, and many of the online reviews I found of the book criticize him for being too heavy-handed with his prose. That’s okay, too. I can enjoy some heavy-handedness with the best of them. It wasn’t nearly as bad as some of the modern best-selling works I’ve read.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about (the historical context, not the heavy-handedness). Janet Todd is the female protagonist of the story, a white woman from Kentucky who was raised with a personal slave named Lucy. At one pivotal point in the story Janet discovers that Lucy has been spying on her, and revealing her role in the creation of the Western Confederacy to the local Union authorities.

For a moment Janet saw the life into which she had been born as an unjust sentence handed down by some malevolent invisible persecutor. She had never asked for this black presence in her life. Any more than her mother and father had asked for this plantation on which a hundred black women and children were eating them into debt while their able-bodied kin worked at half-speed because they knew they could join the Union Army any time they chose and there was nothing Colonel Todd could do to retrieve them. The Todds, Kentucky, the whole South were sinking into ruin because no one knew what to do with these people. To free them risked anarchy, to keep them in bondage produced betrayals like this one—and worse.

It’s a peek into a world in which slavery is a fact of life. It’s wrong, of course it is. I’m not trying to argue it isn’t. But in 1864 it was a fact of life, and a tremendous and life consuming war was being fought over it, and Janet’s frustration with not being able to live with or without it is both perfectly natural from a human perspective and perfectly foreign from a modern one.

Another great tidbit comes from the following:

Henry Gentry gulped his bourbon. He wished he could pray to someone for forgiveness. But he had no hope or faith in such a possibility. Since Harvard, he had never been a believer in much of anything beyond Ralph Waldo Emerson’s careless God, Brahma, the blind slayer of the evil and the good.

I haven’t read much Emerson, so I had to hunt this one down. It’s from one of his most famous poems, Brahma, which begins:

If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Like a lot of poetry I had to read that a few times to get the gist of it, and the line from Fleming’s novel certainly helped. It is well known that leaders on both sides in the American Civil War thought that they were acting in accordance with God’s will—at least early on. More and more of them came to believe by the end that God, if he meddled at all in the affairs of men, had a different purpose in mind that neither side could claim but which both sides together were fulfilling. That purpose is usually seen as the noble one—the eradication of slavery and the long-delayed punishment for those who had perpetrated it. Fleming here raises the possibility that his purpose may not have been so noble. It may, in fact, have been inscrutable—a notion that certainly appeals to my sensibilities.

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