If there is a constant refrain throughout Howard Bahr's American Civil War novel, The Black Flower, it's "there's been too much killing already". The weariness and the grief amongst the characters is as palpable as it is unremitting. And it's not just the soldiers, though it's mostly the men fighting the battles. There is always the sense that everyone is at the end of their tethers. There is so much death, so many broken bodies. The dirt, the blood, the grime is everywhere. Even the surgeons are drunk on chloroform from having performed so many amputations. And the women thrust into the role of nursemaid have moments when their empathy towards the wounded has simply run out.
The bulk of the story takes place late in the war, in November and December of 1864 during and after the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee. It's a battle that the Confederates lose and realization has set in that the war is nearing its end and defeat perhaps not far off, but still the soldiers regroup and continue to fight with ever smaller numbers and mostly without their officers. For a war story, though, actual battlefield scenes are few. This doesn't lessen the horror and maybe it even heightens it. It's in the small details that Bahr brings home to the reader the ugliness of the war. The ordinariness of life takes on an entirely different hue now. Maybe there is nothing ordinary anymore, as the world seems to have gone slightly mad, and the violence is inescapable.
Although the story centers around a twenty-six year old soldier from Mississippi called Bushrod Carter and a young woman, Anna, who is visiting her cousin in Tennessee when their home had been requisitioned for use as a hospital, other characters come center stage as well to tell their story, or rather 'a story'. It reminds me of a patchwork quilt in the presentation. The patches taken from old fabric remnants with bits of lace and buttons to decorate it and each telling its own story. So, too, does Bahr tell his story.
There would be grey from the soldiers uniforms, Bushrod and his buddies Jack and Virgil C. The grey would be a reminder of Bushrod's lost youth and love for his cousin Remy. There might be bars from an officer's uniform like the man who spoke with Anna's family about the house and exchanged warm and meaningful looks with her, but then is killed by a sharpshooter. Anna's yellow dress would be represented. Such a cheerful color worn in the heat of a battle which she can see from an upper window. Buttons taken from Virgil C.'s clothing would be added--the only things left to remember him when all is said and done.
Although the story moves along at different paces, sometimes fast and furious and at others slowly, there is a certain symmetry to it all. To be honest the experience ran hot and cold for me. At times I loved it despite the dark imagery and maybe even because of it, but other times I had to set it aside as it felt too raw and demanding and I wondered just where it was all going. But looking back on the story the various elements do fit together quite nicely in ways that it was hard to see in the telling.
Other than the flashbacks the story takes place over the course of only a very few days. Anna remarks that she had only just met Bushrod a day ago and now he is sitting wounded in this house turned hospital. Whatever bond they forged is a precarious one. They might never have met save for the war and had they met under other circumstances she would have been unlikely to have taken to this quiet soldier with his beautiful hands. Yet each character is finely drawn even if they had only a small role. Each sheds light on the story, on the war and the violence it brings. Not everyone is a hero and some of the characters are downright deplorable. Certainly they are all human. There are not a lot of heroics in the grand way we think of them, but more in the small ways that a friend remembers another.
As much as I like and admire Bushrod, I have to say I appreciate Nebo Gloster even more. A man who has been pulled into a war he didn't even know was happening and has probably never worn a pair of shoes a day in his life. He's something of a misfit having been brought up by a pair of ne'r do well brothers and certainly no soldier, causing more havoc than helping the cause, yet the humanity he shows is deep and unconditional.
Bahr tells so many smaller stories within this grand story, each linked in its own way, though the characters may come and go never seen again or maybe hinted at later. One of the best of these for me was an officer reflecting on a painting in his family's house of Napoleon's defeat and the soldiers weary and pathetic who flee the battlefield in what the officer sees as ignominy. How he hated it when he was small and vowed it would be nothing he would ever experience. Yet those emotions are now all too real for him and he knows his own outcome will be much the same if he is even able to walk away in the end.
I don't think I could ever read this book again, but it's one that I think would be an even richer experience a second time around to see how it all falls together in the storytelling. I've read practically nothing about the Civil War, though my recollections from what I did learn mesh to some degree what I already knew. Still, so much of it was surprising. This is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong. Next up is Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, which is probably the only Civil War novel I have read since I was in school. It was many years ago, however, so I expect it will be like reading the book as though it was new. I'm looking forward to comparing the stories.
You can read Caroline's thoughts on the book here, and she will be linking to other reviews as well.