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Wednesday, 03 February 2010 15:01

An American original

Written by 

Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell. Pantheon, 2009. 352 pages.

 

Although several biographies of Nathan Bedford Forrest have found publishers over the last 60 years, Civil War buffs, serious followers of fiction, and those who simply enjoy a great read will all find pleasures galore in Madison Smartt Bell’s Devil’s Dream (978-0-375-42488-5, $26.95). Bell, who also wrote All Souls’ Rising, a novel of the Haitian revolt against the French, as well as nearly 20 other books, here gives us Bedford Forrest with all his glories and foibles.

Like Andrew Jackson, who resembles Forrest in both temperament and courage — both men were duelists, were possessed by savage tempers, and fought like hellcats in battle — Forrest was a product of the Southern frontier and an American original. A slave trader, a teetotaler, an autodidact with atrocious spelling, a man loyal to his family, one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan, he also ranks as one of the greatest generals and fighting men in American history. Had he possessed more authority at Shiloh and at Chickamauga, there is the real possibility that the war in the West would have seen greater Rebel triumphs.

Forrest, who had never formally studied military tactics, followed several simple tactical rules for battle. He believed in attack rather than defense. He knew how to maneuver and feint. He understood the importance of the unrelenting chase once the enemy was on the run, pursuit that lasted until that enemy was crushed and surrendered.

In Devil’s Dream, Bell gives us not only the brilliant general — the savage cavalryman who, having once ridden alone into a swarm of Yankee infantry, cutting and slashing, took a round in the back that almost unhorsed him, grabbed a Yankee, flung him across his back for protection, and rode back to his own lines, throwing the Yankee down behind him — but he also permits us great insight into the man who was the loving husband of Mary Ann, the lover of a slave named Catherine, the father of a slave named Matthew, and a commander who was both solicitous and harsh toward his men. To paint this portrait, Bell uses a platoon of characters to show us his many qualities and to flesh out both Forrest’s life and the violent world in which he lived.

From this same palette Smith creates vivid battle scenes. Here he describes a charge in which Forrest leads his men, including his slave-son Matthew and Henri, a recruit of mixed race:

“Keep up the skeer!” Forrest cried, one more time, ordering out small squads of his escort to press the receding Yankee rear. Matthew rode in the forefront of these, with Henri barely able to keep up with him and maybe not entirely willing to — he felt cold and empty as a washed-out jug since their tour of the riot around Ololona — but Matthew was burning, burning, or it was Forrest’s words that burned inside him. “Make yore ownself free.”

Devil’s Dreams should prompt readers who are strangers to Bell’s fiction to seek out his other books as well.

•••

Another fine book which takes as its topic the War Between the States is Amanda C. Gable’s The Confederate General Rides North (ISBN 978-1-4165-9839-8, $26). In this quirky first novel, Gable tells the story of Kat McConnell, an 11-year-old who, living in Georgia in the 1960s, falls in love with the history of the Civil War. Her mother, an artist and a New Englander, decides, seemingly on a whim, to take Kat and head north to New England, with the idea of buying antiques along the way and opening a store in New England. Unwillingly, Kat goes along with this plan — she has little choice — though she is upset about leaving her father and her grandparents without even saying goodbye.

To cope with this upset in her life, Kat pretends that she is a Confederate general. Though this twist may seem a frivolous, even silly, premise for a plot to a book, Gable weaves from it a rich tapestry between the past and the present, between reality and illusion, giving us in the process a fine story indeed. Their trips to various Civil War battlefields (Kat persuades her mother to go to these places by explaining about the antique shops they’ll find there); Kat’s mother’s extraordinary harsh take on the South, on her in-laws, and finally on Kat herself (readers will want to smack this woman about halfway through the book); and Kat’s image of herself as a Confederate general all make for a grand tour of the soul and spirit of young girl caught up in a family battle beyond her ken.

In those parts of The Confederate General Rides North where Kat pretends to be a general, Gable writes near-hypnotic prose. She makes the war a metaphor for Kat’s struggles with her family, particularly her mother, and writes so well in these passages that many readers may find themselves, several days after finishing this book, thinking along the lines of Kat:

A weight lies on the Confederate general’s shoulders, the hope of Virginia and the rest of the South, and if she doesn’t figure out how to turn this failing campaign around, she will let everyone down ... Whatever happens, she must figure out what’s working and do it more, and uncover what’s wrong and fix it.

A delightful and highly recommended saga of a brave young girl, the Civil War, and the place of family and honor in our lives.

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