Top positive review
6 people found this helpful
When memory betrays
on October 21, 2013
This book is an example of historical fiction. As is typical of this literary genre, the historical figures are present but exist mainly off- stage. The story tells of the little known Battle of Franklin, Tennessee. The historical figure John bell Hood is never heard from directly. Nathan Bedford Forest pays token, meaningless visits. But the main characters, three confederate soldiers exist center stage and rate most of our attention. The advantage of a historical novel is the author can distance himself from the action, examining the larger issues without being bound by specific facts and without undue influence of politics or even history. And so Bahr has a lot to say about war and its corrosive effects on people and on society. If one is to understand war and its consequences, he could do no better than read this book
The book is unrelentingly sad. It is told using a somewhat complicated prose style, which is at once beautiful but is also challenging to understand. The language contributes to the feeling of unreality, which is contrasted periodically by cruel truth. The author loves words and plays with them in a unique and idiosyncratic fashion. He refers to the enemy as "Strangers" and the dead as the "Departed." He may combine words as Departed Strangers for enemy dead. He thus assigns a dignity and concern for them that stands in jarring contrast to realities evident during actual war. The author frequently incorporates unfamiliar vocabulary, and southern expressions, giving the impression that it was written in another time and place. We require a glossary to understand that "peckerwoods" are southern white trash.
Throughout, the story is punctuated by memory and dreams adding to the sense of mystery of a bygone era. The title hints at its meaning. The black flower does not exist in nature. It is a concept employed to evoke a sense of darkness and death. Hawthorne mentions it in the Scarlet Letter, evoking the notion of evil and a concealment of the truth. The author of this story fearlessly deals with the evil of war and in no sense is he concealing the truth.
The book begins with a strange story of a priest who is also a general. It is weird and puzzling. However, we soon realize that we have just eavesdropped on the dream of a character we have not yet met. The dreamer turns out to be Bushrod Carter, the protagonist of the story. It is partially through his dreams and memories that the story is told. The trope of the dream is repeated again and again in the novel and memories continue to intrude on the present until we must work to distinguish memory from dreams and dreams from reality.
The first half of the book consists of nightmarish vignettes lasting over a period of 48 hours. The story tells of three lifelong friends from Cumberland Tennessee who fought for the Confederacy over a period of three years. We become acquainted with Bushrod Carter, Virgil Johnson and Jack Bishop and are struck by the affection they have for one another. All manage to survive the war without a scratch until that fateful day in November 1864 when they take part in a charge against entrenched troops near the small town of Franklin, Tennessee. It is here that they meet up with the Black Flower. Two of the friends die for their country on that day. Death would await Bushrod a few days later.
The story changes pace for the second half, which takes place at a makeshift hospital. Here Bushrod meets up with Anna who is a southern belle, now devoting her efforts to the wounded soldiers. Our image of southern civilians is promptly shattered. Anna is hardened by the war and is repulsed by the soldiers. All that was genteel about southern society was transformed by the cruelty of the war. Nonetheless, Anna represents an incipient love interest. It seems that there is perhaps hope for for Bushrod and possibly for the South as well. But it is only an illusion. His love is stillborn when he suddenly dies of infection after amputation of his arm. The author has no mercy for the characters or for the reader who is continually bathed in despair.
The author teases the reader with a brief reprieve in the epilogue. It is beautifully written with a meaning that is somewhat obscure. It tells of Winder McGavock, a non-combatant introduced in the second half of the book. He finds a pony in a field, which was previously the site of a battle. One is not certain as to whether it is a true event or a dream. The scene represents a return to normalcy after the havoc of the Civil War. But we know that the notion of hope is illusionary. In less than half a century, the entire world would once again know the grotesque havoc of war, and would once again see the Back Flower.
The book is multilayered with many meanings. It would appear to be primarily about pain and loss, but also about war, the corrosive effects of war and about human relationships. Ultimately it is about betrayal. It is about priests who become confused as to their roles and assume the title of general. It is about ordinary men who betray their humanity when they regard strangers as enemies. It is about military commanders who send their men into hopeless battles and civilians who betray those same men. But the ultimate betrayal is memory itself. It is said that memories change their meaning with each recall. Bahr indicts non-combatant women who concoct the false memory of the Lost Cause to serve their own needs, ignoring the realities of the men who actually fought.
"So the women would not forgive. Their passion remained intact, carefully guarded and nurtured by the bitter knowledge of all they had lost, of all that had been stolen from them... They banded together into a militant freemasonry of remembering, and from that citadel held out against any suggestion that what they had suffered and lost might have been in vain. They created the Lost Cause, and consecrated that proud fiction with the blood of real men."