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Coal Black Horse

3.76 of 5 stars 3.76  ·  rating details  ·  1,086 ratings  ·  265 reviews
When Robey Childs's mother has a premonition about her husband, a soldier fighting in the Civil War, she does the unthinkable: she sends her only child to find his father on the battlefield and bring him home.

At fourteen, wearing the coat his mother sewed to ensure his safety—blue on one side, gray on the other— Robey thinks he's off on a great adventure. But not far from
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published April 10th 2007 by Algonquin Books (first published January 1st 2007)
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All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria RemarqueCatch-22 by Joseph HellerSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutThe Things They Carried by Tim O'BrienFor Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Best War Novels
128th out of 605 books — 595 voters
A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail LermontovCoal Black Horse by Robert OlmsteadThe Collector of Worlds by Ilija TrojanowGolo Mann by Tilmann LahmeDas Wetter vor 15 Jahren by Wolf Haas
SWR Bestenliste 2006 - 2010
2nd out of 151 books — 8 voters

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Community Reviews

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Jeffrey Keeten
Feb 09, 2015 Jeffrey Keeten rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Jeffrey by: Mike
”He let float in the dark air his free hand and then raised it up and reached to the sky where his fingers enfolded a flickering red star. The star was warm in his hand and beat with the pulse of a frog or a songbird held in your palm. He caressed the star and let it ride in his palm and then he carried the star to his mouth where it tasted liked sugar before he swallowed it.”

Robey Childs’s mother had a dream that Stonewall Jackson had died. In her mind, if Jackson was dead, then the war was ove
I was impressed with Robert Olmstead's spare, lyrical prose in this coming-of-age novel set during the Civil War. Robey Childs is a 14-year-old boy living on an isolated farm in the region which is now West Virginia. His mother has a premonition that Confederate General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson has died, and that her husband is in danger. She sends her only child on a journey to find his father, and bring him home. A neighboring shopkeeper gives him an experienced coal black horse to ride. The ...more
“You have to know, son. What happened here was not enmity or brutality.”
“Yes sir,” he said. “I know. Rest now.”
“This was not the raving mad. This was not for love or greed or ignorance. These are the well bred and the highly educated. This is humanity. This is mankind, son.”

Coal Black Horse was a horrific and starkly beautiful civil war novel . Sparse in prose yet deeply expressive, it captures the reality and hopelessness of war and the loss of innocence with a style and imagery reminiscent of
Diane Barnes
I don't think any review can quite do justice to this one. It is one of the most amazing Civil War novels ever written, concerning mainly the days after the battle of Gettysburg. Robey Childs is a 14 year old boy sent from his home in West Virginia by his mother to find his father and bring him home. His journey is a haunted one, and the writing so perfect you can literally feel this boy becoming a man. The depiction of the battlefield after the fighting is over is graphic in its desciption of n ...more
Larry Bassett
I have read plenty of books about the American war in Vietnam but relatively few about the American Civil War. I am wondering if the stories told from a bloody battlefield are timeless. In this powerful and poetic book both death and life exhibit strong powers to prevail.

Coal Black Horse is the story of a fourteen year old boy who is sent by his mother to bring home his soldier/father from the battle at Gettysburg. It is the experience of a young boy in a war. I have heard stories about children
Masterfully written, this is lyrical at points but also extremely dark in its entirety. It's Civil War at the time of Battle of Gettysburg summer. Classical war novel here; yet there is no part that is not prose beautiful. It is the reality of emotional hopelessness and loss of innocence, if existing before this journey/task- then certainly not after. That surety is what most remains in my memory at the book's end, regardless of there being some elemental forgiving outcomes. The protagonist is l ...more
You know how some guys look back to their early adolescent years and brag about how they were manly well before their friends (Uncle Rico). Well for most that self endorsed image is imaginary and untrue. Not so for The 14 year old main character here. He left West Virginia on horseback to hopefully retrieve his hopefully still living Civil War soldier father at the bequest of his mother who had a premonition that her young sons retrieval was the only chance of seeing him again.........knowing fu ...more
Jul 14, 2007 Wendy rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone who liked "Cold Mountain" or likes fiction about the Civil War
A young boy goes in search of his father in the Civil War and finds him on the battlefield in Gettysburg. Very, very dark, almost mythological in scope, and beautifully written, but I had a few problems: 1) It was a bit too graphically violent for my taste. 2) The main character was way too philisophical for his age. I mean, he's 14 years old, and he reflects on things like he's 45. I found this annoying. And 3) Too many coincidences. The main character keeps running into the same people, no mat ...more
Robey Child's mother instructs him to find his father on the Civil War battlefield and bring him home. What follows is an extremely well-written historical novel and coming of age tale. During his journey, Robey is exposed to the best and worst of human nature, from the murderous deceptions of a wartime scavenger to the fatherly kindnesses of a Union officer, and he is forced to examine his own capacity for cruelty, cowardice, bravery, and tenacity in the wake of war's horror.

This book was a win
Ron Charles
To the steady drumbeat of powerful Civil War novels that continue to arrive, you must add Coal Black Horse. Here, distilled into just 200 pages, is the story of how a young man and a young nation lost their innocence. With his lush, incantatory voice, Robert Olmstead describes a boy thrust into one of the war's most horrific moments.

In the opening pages, 14-year-old Robey Childs is called into the house by his clairvoyant mother. It's May 1863, and she perceives that the Civil War has reached a
Joyce Lagow
A classic coming-of-age tale set in the horror of the American Civil War.[return][return]After hearing of the death of Stonewall Jackson, Hettie Childs sends her 14 year old son Robey off to find his father, who is fighting with Lee s army. A neighbor gives him a magnificent coal black horse and a pistol, warning Robey that he will have to learn much and by implication mature into adulthood quickly if he is to survive his quest.[return][return]So equipped, Robey sets off from what is probably on ...more
While I was reading this, I kept thinking about communication, and history, and the way we approach historical events, removed by a hundred years.

It's easy to look back on a battle and say, That was the Battle of Gettysburg. It was fought in early July 1863 with 50,000 casualties. You had Meade on one side and Lee on the other. You can go back and draw up the battle plans in your head and watch how it was supposed to go and how it really went.

It's another thing to be there. Particularly from the
Bookmarks Magazine

Robert Olmstead has previously published three novels, a short story collection (River Dogs), and a memoir. Brief and intense, Coal Black Horse has generated high praise and seems destined to become the author's breakout book. Critics inevitably compare the novel to Charles Frazier's masterpiece, Cold Mountain, and other classics of Civil War and postapocalyptic fiction: Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, E. L. Doctorow's The March, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and Michael Shaara's Killer

I'm disappointed with this book as in many places it felt choppy and underdeveloped. The main character (Robey-a 14 yr. old boy)was absolutely boring with no personality. Dialogue between the characters did nothing to enhance the story. The Coal Black Horse, who should have been a more important character in the book.....thus the title, was only mentioned occassionally and did nothing to show his importance in the story. The author did do a good job describing the graphic carnage of post-battle ...more
Deborah Edwards
This is one of the darkest books I have ever read. Olmstead, utilizing the deceptively simple storyline of a boy sent by his mother to find his father and bring him home during the Civil War, has created a tale of nearly mythological proportions that explores every possible atrocity known to humankind. Along his journey, our fourteen year-old protagonist witnesses life-altering violations of human virtue, a barrage of repulsive acts and abhorrent characters that make him question everything he h ...more
This is the second novel by this author that I've read, and like the first one, I'm tempted to give this one five stars. It's the story of a boy, fourteen years old, sent by his mother to bring his father home from the Civil War. The father seems to have joined up with the Army of Northern Virginia, and the boy,Robey, takes off on a journey east to find him. He encounters several characters, some dangerous, before he finds his father badly wounded, on the evening after Pickett's Charge. He, and ...more
Evanston Public  Library
On the eve of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, Hettie Childs has a premonition and sends her only child Robey, age fourteen, on a mission to bring his father back to the safety of their remote farm in the Virginia hills. Robey's journey is arduous, perilous, and brings this boy's childhood to a sudden and lasting end. Accompanied by a beautiful and mystical coal black horse, Robey is shot, robbed, nearly starved, and hunted by the terrible, desperate characters created by war. He witnesses horr ...more
Sandra Strange
OK, many people rave about this novel. The style and use of language is masterful. The picture of what the American Civil War was really like is gripping, though horrific. BUT the novel itself is BLEAK. The novel tells the “mesmerizing descent into the hypnotic and violent hell of war” of a fourteen year old who must journey (much of the time on the titled horse, which is much wiser and more experienced than he) through the worst of the Civil War, including a graphic rape, brutal scavengers’ dep ...more
Jul 28, 2008 Gena rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to Gena by: NPR
I bought this book after listening to a positive review from some guy on NPR. He was so emphatic that everyone listening to the radio program should run right out and buy it that I did just that. I'm about half way through it- I put it down for a few days after realizing that it wasn't the right kind of book to be reading on vacation. I'll go back to it and finish it eventually but I'm not running back. Maybe it's just not my kind of book? I'm having a hard time connecting to the book. Having sa ...more
Dwayne Wojtowicz
"Coal Black Horse" is a complete departure from the genres that I usually read. This novel embodies the three items of preserverance: boldness, bravery, and self-possession.

The Civil War is the backdrop for this outstanding novel. It is about a boy who is sent on a life changing journey to seek out his father, after his mother has had a premonition about her husband. During his journey, Robey Child, finds every form of the seven deadly sins, but only to survive them and to help save a sexually a
During the Civil War, a clairvoyant Appalachian mother sends her innocent 14 year old son on a solo quest to find her husband/his father, a soldier in the Confederate army, wherever he might be. If you are already getting the idea that this book has a lot of very unlikely premises and events, then you are correct. And they get more numerous and more improbable as the story goes on.
There are a number of well-written scenes and striking images, although there is also a lot of overwriting as wel
This book was a coming of age story about a 14 year old boy growing up in the South during the Civil War. It was full of mystic symbolism, a contrast of good versus evil, dark forces versus light, the good and evil within every person. I found the language and the writing style somewhat difficult to follow (e.g., choppy sentences, convoluted sentence structure, etc.) and the story itself unbelievable. But the mysticism made the book interesting.
The influence of Cormac McCarthy is pretty obvious with this one. But that's a good thing, since Coal Black Horse effectively cobbles together the extreme violence and surreal settings and characters of the early novels, to the greater sense of humanity of the later years. But no writer wants to be so heavily compared to another, and it's this sense of humanity that is Olmstead's strength. Great Civil War book.
Lea Mcdonald
Be warned...This book is not a book you want to grab if you are looking for a light beach read! This book is dark and disturbing and bleak- the writing style reminded me of Steinbeck's Red Pony for some reason (even though its been YEARS since I read that book). This book is a story about a boy searching for his father on the battlefields during the Civil War and the people he encounters along the way, while riding his Coal Black Horse. The sights he sees are horrific and the author does a great ...more
Cathy Stanz
Can I say it was wonderfully written but kind of horrible? It seems to be an accurate portrayal of war, from the eyes of a boy sent to take word to his father of his brother's death. The horror, starvation, physical difficulties, selfish theft from the boy, even attempted murder, are realities to this young man. His description of the people and situations he met on his way included rape and common law marriage to underage girls, allowed by the girl and her parents so they have food to eat, thef ...more
Fantastic. I never thought I'd dig into the American Civil War to find such anger over war. Death is death. I wasn't thinking so historically as I was simply thinking, "War is wrong." Lessons from the past, invested in today.
I studied under this author in Lisbon, Portugal for the DISQUIET Int'l program (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED FOR WRITERS!). We looked at a story with a similar event to one that happens in the story, and I understand Olmstead's response to the piece we'd looked at much better after re
Cathy Smith
I received the book for free through Goodreads First Reads. I was very interested in this book and did not want to put it down...the storyline was good. I could have used a few more details, like at the end, when the babies were born. Did the boy ever marry her or go to someone else? What happened to the father's body and all the gold and letters that were buried with him? Who was the real owner of the coal black horse? What happened to the horse after they returned? So many unanswered qustions. ...more
Nancy Pinard
This is the best book I read all winter. It's a horse-and-his-boy story, like WAR HORSE for plot, but the writing is stunningly beautiful. The story rises to the level of myth, the characters unforgettable in the way of that goose woman in COLD MOUNTAIN. That said, don't take it to the beach. The Battle of Gettysburg is rendered in all its bloody horror. But it has that universal quality of truth that got me through it. And the horse comes off the page, galloping into the room.

Nancy Groves
If you need any convincing that war is hell, not just for those doing the fighting but for their families and many others caught in the crossfire, so to speak, this book will do it. The story follows a 14-year-old boy who has grown up in an isolated, mountainous area who is sent by his mother to bring back her husband, who is fighting in the Civil War. After witnessing much brutality, horror, and death, as well as occasional unexpected kindness and decency, he finds his father, dying, after the ...more
This adult Civil War novel was a disappointment. It's too literary for me and for my students. The author definitely did his research on what the aftermath of a battlefield looked like though. At some parts I felt like I was reading from my old Civil War textbook. Yes, I really did take a class for my minor called THE CIVIL WAR. My professor even shot a musket on campus. I bet they don't do that anymore![return][return]I'm sure I'm supposed to use words like beautiful, stunning, powerful, blah, ...more
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Robert Olmstead (born January 3, 1954) is an award-winning American novelist and educator.

Olmstead was born in 1954 in Westmoreland, New Hampshire. He grew up on a farm. After high school, he enrolled at Davidson College with a football scholarship, but left school after three semesters in which he compiled a poor academic record. He later attended Syracuse University, where he studied with Raymon
More about Robert Olmstead...
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“All that night he followed bends of the black road jeweled by starlight until the wan light of the dawn touched the east with red and the pastures turned green." (pg. 76)” 4 likes
“Hast thou given the horse strength? Hast thou clothed his neck with thunder?...He swalloweth the ground with fierceness and rage...” 4 likes
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