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The Judas Field: A Novel of the Civil Warby Howard Bahr
Synopses & Reviews
In this epic novel of violence and redemption by the author of The Black Flower, a Civil War veteran travels back over old battlefields toward a reckoning with the past.
It's been twenty years since Cass Wakefield returned from the Civil War to his hometown in Mississippi, but he is still haunted by battlefield memories. Now, one afternoon in 1885, he is presented with a chance to literally retrace his steps from the past and face the truth behind the events that led to the loss of so many friends and comrades.
The opportunity arrives in the form of Cass's childhood friend Alison, a dying woman who urges Cass to accompany her on a trip to Franklin, Tennessee, to recover the bodies of her father and brother. As they make their way north over the battlefields, they are joined by two of Cass’s former brothers-in-arms, and his memories reemerge with overwhelming vividness. Before long the group has assembled on the haunted ground of Franklin, where past and present —the legacy of the war and the narrow hope of redemption — will draw each of them toward a painful confrontation.
Moving between harrowing scenes of battle and the novel's present-day quest, Howard Bahr re-creates this era with devastating authority, proving himself once again to be the preeminent contemporary novelist of the Civil War.
"A middle-aged salesman in 1885 Mississippi, Cass Wakefield is a Civil War veteran of the Army of Tennessee, which saw action far from the leadership of Robert E. Lee, and ended, badly, at the battle of Franklin in 1864. Cass agrees to accompany a neighbor, 54-year-old terminally ill widow Alison Sansing, to Tennessee to recover the bodies of her father and brother, killed at Franklin. As they travel north, Cass's memories return with painful vividness, culminating as he walks over the scene of his army's disastrous defeat. Bahr (The Black Flower) moves back and forth between the tattered post-Reconstruction South and the war. He describes the effect of weapons on flesh in gruesome detail and brings to life a long-gone era with its strange smells, foods, fashions and principles. Though his uneducated characters often seem a little too articulate, their insights are excellent. Author of other well-regarded novels on the same period, Bahr treats the war as a natural disaster not unlike a hurricane." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"'It is well that war is so terrible — we should grow too fond of it.' — Robert E. Lee, 1863 'Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.' — Thomas 'Stonewall' Jackson, 1863 Located somewhere between these quotes, Lee's at the battle of Fredericksburg and Jackson's last words after being (accidentally) shot by his own men at Chancellorsville, lies... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a fundamental truth about warfare. The experience that men go through in battle becomes a state almost impossible to describe, an otherworldly, near out-of-body experience. It's this strange and primal condition that leads veterans of all combats to remain largely silent about their experiences, even with other veterans. They may speak of the where, the when, occasionally the why, but almost never of what occurred. Tim O'Brien, in his excellent short story collection 'The Things They Carried' (1990), comes close to revealing the nature of such memories, which tend to be fragmentary, contradictory and distorted, leaving the warrior unsure of what happened after the event and even of how he acted and reacted during battle. In the late hours of daylight on Nov. 30, 1864, the Federal Army led by Brig. Gen. Jacob Cox met the Confederate Army of Tennessee commanded by Lt. Gen. John Hood around the small town of Franklin, Tenn. Each army consisted of slightly more than 20,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, but if these numbers suggest an even match they're an inaccurate indicator of the conditions. The federal army arrived early in the day and had time to dig fortifications and determine the field of battle. The rebels arrived late in the afternoon, after days of hard marching, and almost immediately went into battle — ill-fed and ill-clothed, fighting in battalion lines spread across wide fields, face-on into the setting sun. The Battle of Franklin has been called the Gettysburg of the West. It began around 4 in the afternoon and ended by 9 that evening, with the final hours fought in darkness. While artillery and cavalry played important roles, the battle consisted mostly of immense bodies of infantry in pitched, hand-to-hand combat. At the end of the day, over 2,300 Union and 2,600 Confederate troops had died. Large portions of the field were several feet deep with the bodies of the dead and dying. The Army of the Tennessee was effectively destroyed. Howard Bahr's 'The Judas Field' recreates this seminal moment in American history with prose that is vivid, unflinching and often incantatory. The book's pace and detail are wrenching, and it is starkly devoid of romanticism. Within the battlefield scenes, Bahr's accomplishment is magnificent: a fully realized depiction of controlled mass butchery on a field of blood, body parts and utterly obliterated human beings. The reader puts down the book with a sense of shock to find he is not actually inside a level of hell. The novel swings back and forth between the battle itself and three survivors 20 years later, on a pilgrimage from Mississippi back to Franklin, accompanying the daughter of their company commander, to see the ground on which her father and brother died. All four travelers have distinct and compelling needs that drive the journey. All four seek redemption of some sort, but redemption in 'The Judas Field' is in scant supply. The stories of ordinary men make for the novel's most provocative and deeply true sections. Even after the war is over and its politics, ideologies and the malignant tumor of human bondage are no longer live issues, the soldiers who survive the war are never done with it. This condition is not presented as the romantic clinging to a lost cause that has impeded honest assessment of those Americans who fought and lost a war, but as a complex meditation on existence. Bahr writes, 'The war did this too: it put those who suffered by it all together in a glass jar like so many strange, dangerous insects, and they could crawl up and down the glass all they wanted, but they could never reach the other side. By the same token, no one else could enter, so inside the jar they created their own world out of memory and grief.' Not far from where I live is a small house shared by three veterans of Vietnam. They live quietly, as far as I can tell. Jeffrey Lent is the author of 'In the Fall' and 'Lost Nation.'" Reviewed by Jeffrey Lent, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"By tying together elements from the earlier novels...Bahr creates what has become a moving, elegiac trilogy on the meaning of war that goes beyond victory or defeat." Boston Globe
"Bahr knows how to turn a phrase and tug on the emotions, visceral feelings that we try to keep buried....He also has the eyes and ears of an artist....His is a rare talent." Denver Post
"This is a mature work of fiction by a gifted writer — affectingly eloquent and fearless of complexity and ambiguity....[A] beautifully wrought novel that deserves a wide audience." Los Angeles Times
"Bahr masterfully portrays ordinary men called to war whose belief in courage, honor, pride, and comrades sustains them but leaves them empty but for their terrible memories and grief. A beautifully written portrayal of the price that war exacts." Booklist
"Carefully written and nuanced." Kirkus Reviews
"This beautiful novel turns the tables on our view of war; the combatants we meet are witty and wry, and we can't help but be charmed by the descriptions of their dusty, dreary, less than honorable and unheroic routine." Library Journal
After returning from the Civil War, Cass Wakefield means to live out the rest of his days in his hometown in Mississippi. But when a childhood friend asks him to accompany her to Franklin, Tennessee, to recover the bodies of her father and brother from the battlefield where they died, Cass cannot refuse. As they make their way north in the company of two of Cass's brothers-in-arms, memories of the war emerge with overwhelming vividness. Before long the group has assembled on the haunted ground of Franklin, where past and present--the legacy of war and the narrow hope of redemption--will draw each of them to a painful reckoning.
About the Author
Howard Bahr teaches English at Motlow State Community College in Tullahoma, Tennessee. His first novel, The Black Flower, was a New York Times Notable Book and received the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His second novel, The Year of Jubilo, was also a New York Times Notable Book. He lives in Fayetteville, Tennessee.
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