This year’s Literature and War Readalong starts strong with Howard Bahr’s powerful book The Black Flower, a novel on the American Civil War. The book is at times a bit patchy, with an eccentric structure and a style reminiscent of an expressionist novel, but it manages one thing admirably well: bringing the Civil War to life for those who were not there.
The book is set in 1864, before, during and after the battle that took place in Franklin, Tennessee. It is told from different POVs, but mostly we see the story unfold through the eyes of Bushrod Carter and Anna Hereford. But Bahr jumps from them to different others from whose point of view we see a small incident or a chapter. One particularly powerful scene is told from the point of view of a wasp.
Anna stays at her cousin’s house, which will be occupied by the army shortly before and after the battle. It will be turned into some sort of field hospital. That’s where Anna and Bushrod meet and fall in love, amidst the chaos and mayhem.
Before he meets Anna we see Bushrod together with his best friends, Virgil and Jack. They wait for the battle to begin and talk about old times. In the afternoon, in what is one of the best scenes of the book, they bury their dead, together with soldiers from the Union. Meeting them up close, shows Bushrod and his friends once more how alike they are and how absurd it is to kill them.
The Black Flower concentrates entirely on these few people and on what happens to them during a short period of time. The strength lies in the way Bahr magnifies details and in his almost expressionist writing. Passages like the one below reminded me of the paintings of Otto Dix.
In the starlight, and in the torchlight as far as it carried, the dead possessed the violated earth. They were draped all over the parapet, festooned in the osage orange hedges, blown back from the embrasures in meaty fragments. In the ditch before the works they lay in geologic strata of regiments and brigades, piled six and eight and ten deep: an inextricable mass of gray and brown, a tangle of accoutrements and muskets, a blur of faces and claw-like hands. Some were almost naked, torn to shreds by canister and rifle fire, the clothes ripped from their bodies;others lay whole and peaceful, dreaming among their comrades. Here and there, dead men who’d had no room to fall stood upright in the pile, still holding their rifles, their faces still set toward the memory of the vanished foe.
Some of the dead were busy. They twitched and jerked from the violence of their passing, they heaved stubbornly as still-living men tried to push up from underneath. The surface layer of wounded writhed and groaned and implored; the whole pile crawled with movement. Steam rose from the fragments, from open skulls and blue pails of entrails. The smell hung close to the ground in the damp night.
If you don’t know a lot about the American Civil War, this book is not going to give you a lot of information. But it will show you how much it cost in terms of human life, safety, and hope. Every war is horrible, but these early wars, with their mass amputations, and improvised field hospitals have a particularly gruesome side. I don’t think that I was fully aware of this. Bahr also describes very well how tired, dirty and worn-out these men were.
Most of the characters in the book are well rendered. Even the minor characters are carefully described. We feel for all of them. Of course we feel particularly strongly for Anna and Bushrod and when the end of the book comes, it’s quite heartbreaking and unexpected.
I was surprised to find almost modernist elements and an episodic structure in this book, as the novel starts rather conventionally. Once I had finished the book, I realised that Bahr not only manged to paint a canvas of this war, but that he also told a tale of love and friendship without sugar-coating or glossing over anything.
I’m glad that the next book is also on the American Civil War and that it contains an introduction. Background information on a war I’m not that familiar with, was the only thing I was missing here.
Should anyone wonder – the title is an allusion to Death.
The Black Flower is the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2014. The next book is the American Civil War classic The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara. Discussion starts on Friday 28 February, 2014. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including the book blurbs can be found here.