#127 ~ A Civil General

December 1, 2008 at 1:08 pm | Posted in Books | 4 Comments
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cover-of-a-civil-general
A Civil General
by David Stinebeck and Scannell Gill

General George Henry Thomas was an interesting man.  Although born and raised in Virginia, he chose to fight for the North during the Civil War.  That decision cost him his family.  Despite his sacrifices, he was still viewed with some suspicion by his fellow officers.  It was his drive, determination, wisdom and dedication to his troops, however that earned him the utmost respect from his troops.  As Colonel Swain, A Civil General’s narrator, described so well, the way in which he worked with his men made them so devoted to him that they would follow him to a sure death if that was what he asked of them.  After Thomas’ death five years after the war, 10,000 people attended his funeral, including President Grant.

After reading just a few chapters of A Civil General I realized that this book is really a love story written from the point of view of one soldier to another.  Colonel Swain clearly believes that General Thomas is the best military leader he has ever met.  Despite being taken into the General’s confidence on the way to Chattanooga, Swain remains in awe of this man.  As he relates the story of Thomas’ last meeting with his friend General Robert E. Lee, it is obvious that Swain took to heart all that Thomas told him.  This was the type of man Swain hoped to become.

A Civil General
is a fitting tribute to an American hero.  General Thomas was a man who, when called upon, put his country before his family and friends.  However much it must have pained him to do so, he never let it show because he knew that he was not alone in making sacrifices.  He felt it was his duty to ensure that no one made the ultimate sacrifice unnecessarily.  At just over 150 pages, this was a fairly quick read.  It did go into some depth during the battle scenes and, as a military novice, I did have some difficulty following exactly what was happening.  This didn’t prevent me for enjoying the book, though.  This would make an excellent addition to the library of anyone who is interested in the Civil War or military history in general.

++++

To learn more about George Henry Thomas, here is a link to his page on Wikipedia.

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To buy this novel, click here.

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#90 ~ Sweetsmoke

July 31, 2008 at 5:15 pm | Posted in Books, Culture, Historical Fiction, Reading | 7 Comments
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Sweetsmoke by David Fuller

This novel, written by screenwriter David Fuller, tells the story of Cassius Howard, the carpenter slave owned by Hoke Howard, a Virginia tobacco farmer. A series of tragic events transformed Cassius from his place Hoke’s favorite and it cost him dearly. The only bright light in the entire situation was the time that Cassius was allowed to recuperate with Emoline Justice, a free black woman. Although Cassius learns a lot from Emoline, her example does not stop him from hardening himself to life and others when he returns back to the plantation. As time goes on, however, he becomes less able to avoid stepping in and helping others when he senses trouble. He even finds himself opening his heart to another slave. When he learns that Emoline was viciously murdered and that there were no plans for the local officials to even investigate it, he cannot and no longer wants to simply sit back and allow this injustice to continue. He vows to find her killer and bring that person to justice no matter what it cost him.

This is a novel that took me by surprise. I can’t say that it started out slow, because that would do it a disservice. What is true is that the first 100 pages built toward something that took me and held my imagination captive until the end. As a reader, I felt that I understood fully what it meant to be a slave. I felt I understood why Cassius had no hope for freedom in his life. Yet, as this same reader, I held out hope for him. In that way, Cassius was much more prepared for what he faced than I was. Much more prepared. When Cassius is forced to watch a female slave be sold in town, I could barely breathe. It was not an unfamiliar scene, but the added details shook me inside. Despite his distaste, Cassius swallowed him emotions as he was expected. In fact, Hoke appeared more tore up about what happened.

Fuller brings the world of slavery to light in a fresh and unique way. The most notable and thought provoking way that Sweetsmoke conveys the dehumanization of slaves was stylistic. When a free person spoke, be they black or white, rich or poor, their words were encased by quotation marks. Not so for the enslaved. When Cassius, Mam Rosie, Big Gus, and the others like them spoke, there were no quotation marks. This tripped me up fairly often at the beginning of the novel. I would read a paragraph and in my confusion realize that I was reading dialog, not prose. My reading quickly improved, but even at the end I stumbled from time to time. Still, I appreciated this choice on the part of the author. It brought home how insignificant slaves were to their owners. The fact that they might have hopes and dreams was wholly ignored and brushed aside. This was something they embodied every day. They didn’t have a last name of their own, so why would they think that their words should be heard or set apart? The lack of quotation marks makes perfect sense.

Sweetsmoke is a compelling and relevant historical novel about the lives of slaves and plantation owners. In Fuller’s world there are good and bad people on both sides of the front door of the big house. No one is idolized or demonized. Like reality, characters simply are who they are. They are not stereotyped. If you want to read challenging historical fiction, you should read this book.

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To buy this novel, which will be released on August 26, click here.

#25 ~ March

May 23, 2007 at 3:04 am | Posted in Books, Historical Fiction, Reading, Religion | 2 Comments
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March by Geraldine Brooks

I have loved Little Women for as long as the first time I picked the book up to read it. My parents gave me a beautiful set of Louisa May Alcott‘s books for Christmas one year. Those books remain my most treasured gift from them (I ought to let them know). When I first heard about this book, I knew that I had to read it. I haven’t really spent much time researching authors, so I knew very little about the world of the Alcott’s other than that the poverty experienced by the March’s in Little Women was based on reality.

March is about seeking redemption and finding forgiveness. It show the effects of demanding yourself to redeem past wrongs without allowing yourself to be forgiven by those you have wronged or, most importantly, yourself. It is also the story of having the courage to understand your spouse and to forgive mis-communications and wrongs.

Captain March started life in a poor family. He made his fortune by traveling through the South selling trinkets along the way. Although attempting to enrich himself, Mr. March’s passion is for learning and reading. Once, while in Virginia, he stays with a wealthy land and slave holder who has the most amazing library Mr. March has ever seen. He revels in his time to freely pursue intellectual pursuits. As an idealistic young man and Yankee, he finds it necessary to argue with his host, Mr. Clement, about slavery when in fact, he does not understand the society at all. With the help of Grace, a house slave, he takes it upon himself to begin teaching a young slave girl how to read. His time spent teaching is immensely rewarding to him, but he has no concept of what his self-righteous pleasure could cost those involved with him. His desire for Grace leads his host to discover what has been happening. Mr. March is dismissed from his plantation, but not before he is forced to watch Grace, stripped from the waist down, have pieces of flesh slashed from her buttocks by the overseer’s whip. We find that even after marrying Marmee and raising a strong abolitionist family that Mr. March cannot forgive himself for causing Grace this humiliation and pain.

Mr. March becomes a preacher and blindly celebrates any person or group working for the end of slavery. Although it causes his family to suffer, he does not much regret giving his entire fortune as an investment to the deceitful John Brown. Brown claimed that the money would be used for peaceful abolitionist purposes, but instead, March unknowingly helped to fund the rebellion that never took off at Harper’s Ferry. He is so enamored of what Brown’s vision that he did not speak out against Brown after he and his family are forced into poverty. He does not want to do anything to smear the reputation of abolitionists.

When the country fell into Civil War, Mr. March gave a sermon for the troops leaving for battle and it is during this speech that he sees a way to clear his conscious – he could join the army as a chaplain and provide aid to soldiers fighting for the cause. He sees his wife in the crowd lifting her hands to him and he takes that as a sign of her unity of purpose. What he didn’t anticipate was that his stringent religious views would irritate his superiors and that the soldiers were not fighting for “the cause.”

After he was unable to save a soldier who couldn’t swim from drowning, he came upon the Virginia plantation that was the sight of the barbaric beating of a woman he loved. Sure enough, Grace is still there. Due to the old age of the Mr. Clement, she stayed when everyone else left. Seeing her again only adds to the heaping pile of sin and unworthiness he feels. After being caught in a somewhat compromising position with Grace, Captain March is forced to leave his post and set up shop as a teacher once again on a homestead for freed slaves. This type of a homestead was a trial to see how a plantation would run when the workers were actually paid for their labors. Over and over again, Captain March is shocked and bewildered when people do live up to the “utopia” he envisioned when blacks and whites lived together in equality. He gets lost in reality that a snap of the fingers doesn’t change hundreds of years of history. He does assimilate as best as he could and did good work until a fever sent him to a military hospital in Washington, DC.

It is while Captain March is delirious that the reader discovers that Marmee March is not in lock step with her husband. Certainly she is an abolitionist and made her home a safe haven along the Underground Railroad, but she resents the loss of the easier life she grew up with and married into. There were a lot of assumptions made on both sides. Captain March’s attempts to redeem himself for Grace’s beating caused his family great harm and ultimately failed to ease his conscience. While tending to her husband in the hospital, Marmee has to deal with her resentment and come to a place of understanding and forgiveness, but Captain March won’t accept it from her.

In the end, the reader is unsure if Captain March ever gave up the ghost of the past and forgave himself. I’m not entirely sure he would know what to do without that hanging over his head. He could not give in to happiness. Blindly following his political and religious ideology throughout his adulthood to impress his wife caused his burden to grow exponentially. All these things he’s blamed himself for were, for the most part, entirely were out of his control. One might even conclude that he was most guilty of the sin of pride – something he did not see.

March is an interesting look at how ideology and merciless self-judgment can take a good man and ruin him. It is unfortunate that Captain March never took the well deserved credit for raising honest, intelligent, hard-working, and humble daughters. It’s funny those people who can see every possible fault in their lives cannot for one second relax and see the beauty.

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