Howard Bahr: The Black Flower (1997) Literature and War Readalong January 2014

The Black Flower

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.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Kailana (The Written World)


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.

Literature and War Readalong January 31 2014: The Black Flower by Howard Bahr

The Black Flower

As I wrote in my introductory post to this year’s readalong, I was at first tempted to include only books based on WWI but decided against that for numerous reasons. In the first readalong I had included two novels on the American Civil War, one of which had to be removed from the list as 2011 was the first year of the German Literature Month and I wanted to add a German novel in November. The novel on the American Civil War that we read in 2011 and which impressed me a great deal was Cold Mountain and when Kevin (The War Movie Buff) mentioned he’d just read another novel on the American Civil War that he found just as compelling, I decided, to include said novel at a later date. So it’s thanks to Kevin that we’re reading The Black Flower this year. I must say I’m very eager, not only because I hope we will like it, but because I’m glad to return to the American Civil War. This book is the first in a series of three books that are dedicated to that war and I’m sure it will be interesting to see how these very different novels will approach the subject. At first I thought that Bahr might have been inspired by Cold Mountain but since both books were published in 1997, I’d say that wasn’t the case.

Howard Bahr was a school teacher before he started to write. The Black Flower  was his first novel. He’s written other novels since then and they all received awards.

Here are the first sentences

Bushrod Carter dreamed of snow, of big, round flakes drifting like sycamore leaves from heaven. The snow settled over trees and fences, over artillery and the rumps of horses, over the men moving in column up the narrow road. A snowflake, light and dry as a lace doily, lit on the crown of Bushrod’s hat; when he made to brush it away, he found it was not snow but hoe cake dripping with molasses.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

The Black Flower by Howard Bahr (US 1997), American Civil War, Novel, 272 pages

The Black Flower is the gripping story of a young Confederate rifleman from Mississippi named Bushrod Carter, who serves in General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee during the Civil War battle that takes place in Franklin, Tennessee, in November 1864. Written with reverent attention to historical accuracy, the book vividly documents the fear, suffering, and intense friendships that are all present on the eve of the battle and during its aftermath. When Bushrod is wounded in the Confederate charge, he is taken to a makeshift hospital where he comes under the care of Anna, who has already lost two potential romances to battle. Bushrod and Anna’s poignant attempt to forge a bond of common humanity in the midst of the pathos and horror of battle serves as a powerful reminder that the war that divided America will not vanish quietly into the page of history.


The discussion starts on Friday, 31 January 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2014

The Black FlowerThe Killer AngelsMarch

Toby's RoomPrivate PeacefulFear

Undertones of WarMy Dear I Wanted To Tell YouPhoenix and Ashes

The LieFlight Without EndLetters From a Lost Generation

The books for Literature and War Readalong 2011 and 2012 were following the different wars in chronological order. This year, 2013, we focused on different countries and wars we hadn’t covered so far. Next year will be about genre and WWI.

I was afraid a whole year dedicated to WWI books would be too much, especially since a lot of blogs run events for the Centenary, that’s why I decided to start with three novels on the American Civil War, one of which was part of 2011’s readalong, but had to be postponed. After that it’s all about WWI and to make it more interesting, I’ve included different genres: Memoir, letters, historical fiction, literary fiction, a children’s book and one fantasy novel. I hope there will be something for everyone among these titles.

The Black Flower

January, Friday 31 

The Black Flower by Howard Bahr (US 2000), American Civil War, Novel, 272 pages

The Black Flower is the gripping story of a young Confederate rifleman from Mississippi named Bushrod Carter, who serves in General John Bell Hood’s Army of Tennessee during the Civil War battle that takes place in Franklin, Tennessee, in November 1864. Written with reverent attention to historical accuracy, the book vividly documents the fear, suffering, and intense friendships that are all present on the eve of the battle and during its aftermath. When Bushrod is wounded in the Confederate charge, he is taken to a makeshift hospital where he comes under the care of Anna, who has already lost two potential romances to battle. Bushrod and Anna’s poignant attempt to forge a bond of common humanity in the midst of the pathos and horror of battle serves as a powerful reminder that the war that divided America will not vanish quietly into the page of history.

The Killer Angels

February, Friday 28

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (US 1974), American Civil War, Novel, 355 pages

The late Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel (1974) concerns the battle of Gettysburg and was the basis for the 1993 film Gettysburg. The events immediately before and during the battle are seen through the eyes of Confederate Generals Lee, Longstreet, and Armistead and Federal General Buford, Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, and a host of others. The author’s ability to convey the thoughts of men in war as well as their confusion-the so-called “fog of battle”-is outstanding. This unabridged version is read clearly by award-winning actor George Hearn, who gives each character a different voice and effectively conveys their personalities; chapters and beginnings and ends of sides are announced. Music from the movie version adds to the drama. All this comes in a beautiful package with a battle map. Recommended for public libraries not owning previous editions from Recorded Books and Blackstone Audio (Audio Reviews, LJ 2/1/92 and LJ 2/1/93, respectively).


March, Monday 31

March by Geraldine Brooks (Australia 2005) American Civil War, Novel, 304 pages

Brooks’s luminous second novel, after 2001’s acclaimed Year of Wonders, imagines the Civil War experiences of Mr. March, the absent father in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. An idealistic Concord cleric, March becomes a Union chaplain and later finds himself assigned to be a teacher on a cotton plantation that employs freed slaves, or “contraband.” His narrative begins with cheerful letters home, but March gradually reveals to the reader what he does not to his family: the cruelty and racism of Northern and Southern soldiers, the violence and suffering he is powerless to prevent and his reunion with Grace, a beautiful, educated slave whom he met years earlier as a Connecticut peddler to the plantations. In between, we learn of March’s earlier life: his whirlwind courtship of quick-tempered Marmee, his friendship with Emerson and Thoreau and the surprising cause of his family’s genteel poverty. When a Confederate attack on the contraband farm lands March in a Washington hospital, sick with fever and guilt, the first-person narrative switches to Marmee, who describes a different version of the years past and an agonized reaction to the truth she uncovers about her husband’s life. Brooks, who based the character of March on Alcott’s transcendentalist father, Bronson, relies heavily on primary sources for both the Concord and wartime scenes; her characters speak with a convincing 19th-century formality, yet the narrative is always accessible. Through the shattered dreamer March, the passion and rage of Marmee and a host of achingly human minor characters, Brooks’s affecting, beautifully written novel drives home the intimate horrors and ironies of the Civil War and the difficulty of living honestly with the knowledge of human suffering.

Toby's Room

April, Monday 28

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker (UK 2013), WWI, Novel, 272 pages

Pat Barker returns to the First World War in Toby’s Room, a dark, compelling novel of human desire, wartime horror and the power of friendship.

When Toby is reported ‘Missing, Believed Killed’, another secret casts a lengthening shadow over Elinor’s world: how exactly did Toby die – and why? Elinor determines to uncover the truth. Only then can she finally close the door to Toby’s room. Moving from the Slade School of Art to Queen Mary’s Hospital, where surgery and art intersect in the rebuilding of the shattered faces of the wounded, Toby’s Room is a riveting drama of identity, damage, intimacy and loss. Toby’s Room is Pat Barker’s most powerful novel yet.

Private Peaceful

May, Friday 30

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo (UK 2003)  WWI, Children’s Book, 192 pages

Heroism or cowardice? A stunning story of the First World War from a master storyteller.

Told in the voice of a young soldier, the story follows 24 hours in his life at the front during WW1, and captures his memories as he looks back over his life. Full of stunningly researched detail and engrossing atmosphere, the book leads to a dramatic and moving conclusion.

Both a love story and a deeply moving account of the horrors of the First World War, this book will reach everyone from 9 to 90.


June, Friday 27

FearLa Peur by Gabriel Chevallier (France 1930)  WWI, Classic, Novel, 320 pages

It is 1915. Jean Dartemont is just a young man. He is not a rebel, but neither is he awed by authority and when he’s called up and given only the most rudimentary training, he refuses to follow his platoon. Instead, he is sent to Artois, where he experiences the relentless death and violence of the trenches. His reprieve finally comes when he is wounded, evacuated and hospitalised.

The nurses consider it their duty to stimulate the soldiers’ fighting spirit, and so ask Jean what he did at the front.

His reply?

‘I was afraid.’

First published in France in 1930, Fear is both graphic and clear-eyed in its depiction of the terrible experiences of soldiers during the First World War.

The Lie

July, Monday 28

The Lie by Helen Dunmore (UK 2014) WWI, Novel, 304 pages

Set during and just after the First World War, The Lie is an enthralling, heart-wrenching novel of love, memory and devastating loss by one of the UK’s most acclaimed storytellers. Cornwall, 1920, early spring.

A young man stands on a headland, looking out to sea. He is back from the war, homeless and without family.

Behind him lie the mud, barbed-wire entanglements and terror of the trenches. Behind him is also the most intense relationship of his life.

Daniel has survived, but the horror and passion of the past seem more real than the quiet fields around him.

He is about to step into the unknown. But will he ever be able to escape the terrible, unforeseen consequences of a lie?

Undertones of War

August, Friday 29

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (UK 1928) WWI, Memoir, 288 pages

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as ‘murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes’. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden’s poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.

My Dear I Wanted To Tell You

September, Monday 29

My Dear, I wanted to tell you by Louisa Young (UK 2011) WWI, Historical Fiction, 336 pages

A letter, two lovers, a terrible lie. In war, truth is only the first casualty. ‘Inspires the kind of devotion among its readers not seen since David Nicholls’ One Day’ The Times

While Riley Purefoy and Peter Locke fight for their country, their survival and their sanity in the trenches of Flanders, Nadine Waveney, Julia Locke and Rose Locke do what they can at home. Beautiful, obsessive Julia and gentle, eccentric Peter are married: each day Julia goes through rituals to prepare for her beloved husband’s return. Nadine and Riley, only eighteen when the war starts, and with problems of their own already, want above all to make promises – but how can they when the future is not in their hands? And Rose? Well, what did happen to the traditionally brought-up women who lost all hope of marriage, because all the young men were dead?

Moving between Ypres, London and Paris, My Dear I Wanted to Tell You is a deeply affecting, moving and brilliant novel of love and war, and how they affect those left behind as well as those who fight.

Phoenix and Ashes

October, Friday 31

Phoenix and Ashes by Mercedes Lackey (US 2004) WWI, Fantasy, 468 pages

In this dark and atmospheric rendition of the Cinderella fairy tale, an intelligent young Englishwoman is made into a virtual slave by her evil stepmother. Her only hope of rescue comes in the shape of a scarred World War I pilot of noble blood, whose own powers over the elements are about to be needed more than ever.

“A dark tale full of the pain and devastation of war…and a couple of wounded protagonists worth routing for.”

Flight Without End

November, Friday 28

Flight Witout End – Die Flucht ohne Ende by Joseph Roth (Austria 1927) WWI, Classic,  144 pages

Flight Without End, written in Paris, in 1927, is perhaps the most personal of Joseph Roth’s novels. Introduced by the author as the true account of his friend Franz Tunda it tells the story of a young ex-office of the Austro-Hungarian Army in the 1914- 1918 war, who makes his way back from captivity in Siberia and service with the Bolshevik army, only to find out that the old order, which has shaped him has crumbled and that there is no place for him in the new “European” culture that has taken its place. Everywhere – in his dealings with society, family, women – he finds himself an outsider, both attracted and repelled by the values of the old world, yet unable to accept the new ideologies.

Letters From a Lost Generation

December, Monday 29

Letters from a Lost Generation by Vera Brittain and Four Friends (UK) WWI, Letters, 448 pages

Nothing in the papers, not the most vivid and heart-rending descriptions, have made me realise war like your letters’ Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton, 17 April 1915.

This selection of letters, written between 1913 & 1918, between Vera Brittain and four young men – her fiance Roland Leighton, her brother Edward and their close friends Victor Richardson & Geoffrey Thurlow present a remarkable and profoundly moving portrait of five young people caught up in the cataclysm of total war.

Roland, ‘Monseigneur’, is the ‘leader’ & his letters most clearly trace the path leading from idealism to disillusionment. Edward, ‘ Immaculate of the Trenches’, was orderly & controlled, down even to his attire. Geoffrey, the ‘non-militarist at heart’ had not rushed to enlist but put aside his objections to the war for patriotism’s sake. Victor on the other hand, possessed a very sweet character and was known as ‘Father Confessor’. An important historical testimony telling a powerful story of idealism, disillusionment and personal tragedy.

I think the list is very different from the last years. The one or the other title like Mercedes Lackey’s book is a bit of gamble but I tried to make the list as diverse as possible.

I hope that many of you will join.