John's Reviews > Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz
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Aug 20, 2012

it was amazing
Read from August 20 to September 02, 2012

Returning with his Australian wife in the 1990s to live in Virginia after years as a foreign war correspondent, Tony Horwitz revisited a childhood obsession with the Civil War, spending the better part of two years covering the territory, mostly in the South.
The result is a remarkable, sometimes funny, sometimes disturbing book. Mr. Horwitz is a fine writer and an even better reporter. He talks to people with extreme views on opposite sides of still-explosive issues. He never seems to mock those people. He allows them to have their say; the reader can judge for himself.
He goes to extremes himself to tell the story. He marches with hardcore reenactors -- reenactors so hardcore that they don't participate in mock battles because real bullets aren't used.
He visits a notorious redneck biker bar in southern Kentucky at risk to his life and limb, although he does have sense enough to make his escape when things get really threatening and his jacket already has been torn by a madman.
That chapter from Kentucky, which wasn't even part of the Confederacy, was so depressing that I had to stop reading for a while. The depth of the racial animus was so egregious that it was just hard to cope with.
On the other hand, the "Gone With the Window" chapter was laugh-out-loud funny. The highlight was his interview with Melly Meadows, a young woman who was making a cottage industry out of playing the part of Scarlett O'Hara-as-played-by-Vivien Leigh.
He follows her to an appointment with a Japanese tour group -- the Japanese turn out to be quite fond of "Gone With the Wind" -- after offering this insight:
Now in her early twenties, Melly was planning for life after Scarlett, and had begun studying at a local college. "I want to be a Christian evangelist," she said. This seemed like quite a jump, from belle to Bible student. But Melly didn't think so. "I stick to best-selling books," she explained.
"Confederates in the Attic" is full of real-life characters, many of whom would be worth a book, or at least a long magazine article, in themselves.
I think my favorite was Jimmy Olgers, whom Horwitz encountered in a place called Sutherland Station, Va. Olgers had turned his family's no-longer-viable general store into a museum of kitsch.
I love this description:
Jimmy Olgers was the rare person who could be called, without hyperbole, larger than life. He was, first of all, extraordinarily large: six feet six and 320 pounds, poured into gym shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt from which his arms and legs poked like huge pink tree limbs. This towering physique was matched, incongruously, with the head of a 1950s science teacher -- buzzcut, square head, black-framed glasses --and the syrupy, almost purring drawl of a Southern funeral director.
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