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 Casss 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.)
"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.
Reading Group Guide
1. How does Casss faith evolve throughout this story, beginning at his mothers deathbed and ending with Queenolia and Alisons burial? What role does religion play for the other characters?
2. Is it possible to hold Cass and the others accountable for the violence they do during the war, for example burning down the house and beating up the owners (pp. 136-138), or for the violence at the end of the story? Is there any sense of right and wrong during the battle scenes in the novel?
3. "I got to feel something," Lucian says to Cass early in the novel, "or I will die." What does he mean? Is Cass right that "It is better not to feel anything"? Are the two men as numb as they think they are? Are there times when numbness is desirable, when it helps to save people?
4. How would you describe the novels portrayal of organized religion? How well do the ministers and priests handle the effects of the war on the men and women they tend to in the story?
5. What does Cass try to teach Lucian as a young man? Do you think Cass is a good influence on the boy?
6. How do the battle scenes in this novel compare to those youve read in other novels or non- fiction accounts? How do these scenes affect the way you think about war?
7. Are the men better of for having returned to Franklin? How does it affect them differently to see the ditch again, to relive the battle? Are they better off? Is Alison?
8. Why does Cass force Alison to imagine the battle (pp. 209-210)?
9. Are the Death Angel and Rufus simply figures of Casss imagination? If so, what drives him to create each one? What purpose do they serve in his mind?
10. How does the author use nature—the sky, the sun, trees, birds, insects—to supplement the description of his characters experience? How do the soldiers in the novel perceive their surroundings differently than those, like Alison, who have not seen battle?
11. "She could never understand what honor meant beyond the word itself", the author writes of Alison (pg. 238). What role does honor play in the novel, in the behavior of Cass, Lucian, Roger, and the other soldiers? What do you think honor means in the context of a chaotic battle like the one at Franklin?
12. Look at Casss musings about God and free will on the last page. Do you agree with his assessment? What in Casss experiences has led him to this hopefulness?