Ride Proud, Rebel! is a Civil War novel set in the western theater during the final days of the war. As the story opens, the protagonist, Drew Rennie,...moreRide Proud, Rebel! is a Civil War novel set in the western theater during the final days of the war. As the story opens, the protagonist, Drew Rennie, has been serving as a cavalry scout in Confederate general John Hunt Morgan's command for two years, having left home in 1862 after a final break with his harsh grandfather, who despised him since his birth because of his mother's runaway marriage to a Texan. Already a seasoned veteran at eighteen, during the final year of conflict Drew has the additional responsibility of looking out for his headstrong fifteen-year-old cousin Boyd, who has run away from home to join Morgan's command and has a lot to learn in the school of hard knocks the army provides. The story follows the two of them and a new friend, a Texas trooper named Anson Kirby who provides both common sense and light comic relief, through campaigns in Kentucky, Tennessee and later on deeper into the South, first with Morgan and later under Forrest.
It's adventure, but not romanticized adventure. Norton paints a vivid picture of both men's and horses' struggles with exhaustion, hunger, cold, heat and thirst, aside from the horrors of battle. The historical detail is good and left me curious to know more about battles such as Cynthiana, Harrisburg and others mentioned. I read a lot about the Virginia campaigns a few years ago, but the western theater of the war is less familiar to me. On another level, the story also follows the characters' personal development throughout their travels, as Drew wrestles with the conflicting desires to know more about what caused the split in his family years ago, or to shut off all thoughts of the past to avoid being hurt by it.
I think Norton's books would probably be classed as YA nowadays, but I didn't discern anything specific in Ride Proud, Rebel! that earmarks it as being especially for young readers, except perhaps the youth of the protagonists. It's good historical fiction that I think adults can easily enjoy. Barring a bit of awkward dialogue, I found the writing to be very good. Norton does tend to use passive voice a lot. The only place the passivity seems to grate is when it's paired with the aforementioned dialogue or appears unexpectedly in the middle of action. The final chapter wraps things up rather quickly and abruptly, but then again, it is laying ground for a sequel.(less)
The wild tide of battle runs red, - dashes high, And blots out the splendour of earth and of sky; The blue air is heavy, and sul'phrous, and dun, And the breeze on its wings bears the boom of the gun. In faster and fiercer and deadlier shocks, The thunderous billows are hurled on the rocks; And our Valley becomes, amid Spring's softest breath, The valley, alas! of the shadow of death.
The background of Beechenbrook is even more fascinating than the work itself. The author, Margaret Junkin Preston, seemingly little-known now but highly regarded in her day, is an historical and literary figure who has intrigued me ever since I first read about her some years ago. She was the sister-in-law of Stonewall Jackson through his first wife, her sister Elinor Junkin. In 1857 Margaret married Major John T.L. Preston, one of the founders of the Virginia Military Institute and a widower with seven children. She eventually had two children of her own. She witnessed the devastation of the Civil War firsthand, enduring the hardships of home-front life, the invasion of Virginia and the loss of two young stepsons. Although these experiences undoubtedly inspired the trials of the representative Southern family in her poem Beechenbrook, the woman who became known as the "Poetess of the Confederacy" suffered personal ambivalence and conflict before coming to fully identify with the Confederate cause. A native of Pennsylvania, she had family on the Northern side of the struggle as well.
Now, I'm no poetry critic. To me, there are two kinds of poetry: the kind that rhymes and the kind that doesn't. I like the kind that rhymes. I can't intelligently critique Beechenbrook in terms of poetry, but I can say that I enjoyed Preston's style. The language is direct, clear and sometimes surprisingly (for lack of a better word) modern, in contrast to the involved and flowery style one expects from Victorian-era literature. I was particularly impressed by how Preston used descriptions of the changing seasons and weather to highlight events in the narrative, by drawing either parallels or sharp contrasts.
The poem is the story of soldier's wife Alice Dunbar and her family as they experience the war from their Shenandoah Valley home—witnessing battles from afar, exchanging letters with an absent husband and father, caring for wounded soldiers and seeing the destruction of their home. Although the descriptions of impassioned patriotism and nobility may seem extravagant now, the emotion that inspired them is real and palpable; the most poignant moments all ring true. It would be very hard not to feel moved by the time one reaches the end of the book.
The story is also imbued with a strong Christian faith, increasingly emphasized as the one thing that sustains Alice throughout her trials. One particularly compelling scene portrays a service conducted by an army chaplain who exhorts his men to regard the spiritual battle as even more important than the physical.(less)
The story that makes this collection worth the price of admission is the middle one, "A Watch and the Wilderness." It's not Brand's usual Western fare...moreThe story that makes this collection worth the price of admission is the middle one, "A Watch and the Wilderness." It's not Brand's usual Western fare, but a haunting Civil War story. It's told in first-person by a young Texan serving in the muddy, heavily bombarded Confederate trenches, who manages to locate the Yankee sharpshooter who's been picking off his companions one by one. The narration is in the blunt, unassuming style that Brand handled so well, yet at the same time deeply poignant. I've read this story more than once, and it always leaves a lasting impression on me, perhaps more than any other piece of Civil War fiction I've encounterd.
The title story, "The Good Badman" is more in Brand's typical vein, a decent short Western in which the protagonist goes on the run believing he's killed a man, and decides he might as well play up to the idea people have of him as a vicious outlaw. A few scenes get pretty well stolen by an unlikely supporting character. "Speedy's Desert Dance" is a bit more dramatized and fanciful in tone, as were most of the Speedy stories - this one perhaps a bit more so, as it deals with the attempted kidnapping of a beautiful Spanish girl arriving at a coastal ranch by sea. I believe this was the last of the Speedy stories, and the ending is a rather nice touch to end the series.(less)
Mark Twain's The Private History of a Campaign That Failed, a fictionalized version of his own wartime experiences, is different from most Civil War f...moreMark Twain's The Private History of a Campaign That Failed, a fictionalized version of his own wartime experiences, is different from most Civil War fiction I've read. There's been a lot written about the disillusionment of war, mostly in a tragic vein, as participants discover the hardship and horror firsthand. Private History, a wryly comic short piece, takes a different approach, using humor to effectively strip away every vestige of romance or glory from the idea of war. It may not be tragic, but it's pathetic. It made me laugh, but it also left me with an oddly melancholy feeling, even as it ended with a humorous line.
It recounts the misadventures of some young men and boys who "[get] together in a secret place at night" (reminiscent of Tom Sawyer's organizing the band of 'robbers' in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) and form an irregular militia company in the early part of the war. They do, as the narrator admits...nothing. Squabbling over rank, trying to ride unruly horses, and retreating every time they hear a rumor of the enemy being in the neighborhood comprise their troubles. The irony lies in that they seem to believe they are really in the war and accomplishing something worthwhile. Their one brush with action turns out to be as much a farce as the rest of the campaign, but sobering, when they shoot an unknown man in a panic while believing they are under attack. The narrator's guilt over this incident, which gives him a very slight glimpse of the difference between "our kind of war" and the reality, strikes the one serious note in the story. But as I said before, the underlying irony through the whole story makes it more than an amusing little tale. It's an interesting look at how humor can be employed to a purpose.
Incidentally, The Private History of a Campaign That Failed was adapted into a TV movie in 1981. I understand that the film also drew on another Twain source for the ending, his dramatic short story The War Prayer, written at the time of the U.S. invasion of the Philippines but not published until six years after Twain's death. According to an IMDB reviewer, the film portrays the unidentified stranger of The War Prayer as the ghost of the man killed by the hapless campaigners. It's an interesting concept, but I can't help wondering how well elements from two stories quite different in tone were blended in the film.(less)