James Murphy's Reviews > The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War

The Black Flower by Howard Bahr
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Mar 12, 10

Read in March, 2010

On p215, Anna, the central woman of The Black Flower, says, "You don't always have to understand a thing to love it, especially if it is beautiful." She wasn't talking about the novel she inhabits as a character, but I am. While I'm not sure I grasped everything Bahr's novel pointed to in terms of symbol and metaphor, I do believe I understand enough to be impressed. It's not only the story I find appealing in fiction. A good novel will project a vision, suggest a central idea, and that's the hook that lands me in the boat. The Black Flower has one of the more sustained visions of hell I've come across in Civil War fiction. A novel by Richard Slotkin called The Crater presents hell unleased but in a much smaller perspective. The intensity and focus Bahr devotes to such a vision of terror and punishment and hell in the assembly of damaged men--read souls--in the McGavock house being used as a hospital following the Battle of Franklin in 1864 is truly impressive. The novel's course follows the characters as they approach this hell, as they are trapped in it, and as some of them leave. I thought referring to the Union enemy as Strangers and the dead as the Departed reinforced this idea of a land of the dead. And added to the general sense of an alternate reality which pervades the novel and is necessary to its overall atmosphere. I liked very much what I felt was the authenticity of the novel, particularly the language. I thought these characters talked the talk, not only the dialogue but the stream of consciousness and even in the omniscient narrator's voice. These characters seemed of their time and place, part of the rural South 146 years ago, and part of the ragtag units the Confederate armies had been reduced to. To me, the single most puzzling element in The Black Flower was wasps. Bahr describes them several times during that hellish night following the battle, wasps lying in pools of candle wax, wasps bumping against the windows or crawling over wounded soldiers. To me it seemed pointed and sent me ruffling through reference books, but I was unable to decide what the author was doing. Aristophanes' play, Wasps, uses them to suggest dreaming and dream intpretation, and that application would go well with Bahr's atmosphere of unreality in a hospital following a major Civil War battle. I'm not sure. But we don't have to understand it to love it if it's beautiful. Good novel.
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Comments (showing 1-13 of 13) (13 new)

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Teresa I hope you end up liking it as much as I did.


James Murphy Teresa wrote: "I hope you end up liking it as much as I did."

Though I've only scratched the surface, I like the authentic feel of the characters. It's a pleasant change to read the Civil War at the level of Johnny Reb, especially junior officers, rather than the higher commanders. And a chaplain's included in the character mix, too. Bahr's descriptions of these people and their attitudes has a good feel to me. I've got an idea I'll like it.


Teresa James wrote: "I've got an idea I'll like it. "

That's good. Because I had the idea that you'd like it too. :)


James Murphy Teresa wrote: "James wrote: "I've got an idea I'll like it. "

That's good. Because I had the idea that you'd like it too. :)"


I've been looking forward to it and was disappointed I wasn't able to start it until now. I'm into it and in the mood for this kind of novel and excited about it. By the way, I wanted to say I like the hat.


Teresa James wrote: "I've been looking forward to it and was disappointed I wasn't able to start it until now. I'm into it and in the mood for this kind of novel and excited about it. By the way, I wanted to say I like the hat."

I remember having a bit of 'trouble' getting into it at first. Perhaps it was just my mood at the time, because when I picked it up again and started over, I was "in."

Thanks! So do I. ;) I have to keep wearing it because I still have trouble believing it actually happened!


Teresa I'm excited (though not surprised) that you liked it so much! In your review you mention much that I love about the book too. And I agree about the wasps -- I might not completely understand the imagery (I'm reminded of the fly at the end of Dostoevsky's "The Idiot") but I love the prose -- I still remember the 'journey' of that one wasp.


James Murphy Yes, that journey was very vivid. I remember it starts on p106. Bahr is very good at evoking the scene in the house that night. Being from the South, we're very familiar with the type of wasps he wrote about, those of the paper-chambered nests, and I could easily see them in the yellow heat and candlelight of his description. Thanks for the recommendation. I notice he's written other novels he also calls "A Novel of the Civil War" and wonder if they also use a slanted focus to say other things. I wonder because even though The Black Flower takes place during and near the Battle of Franklin, I personally thought it a novel about death as much as it's about the war. I didn't mention in my blurb how tragic and sad I found it.


Teresa I haven't read any of his other books. I missed an opportunity to hear him speak (it was before I read this book) and at another book event I went to he had canceled ahead of time.

I agree that it's much more than 'just' a novel about the war. For me, a big theme was how one remains human despite unimaginable pain and fear (as I wrote in my review). And, yes, there's the big theme of death.

Here's the one passage I copied from the book - I believe it was very early on (I didn't note the page):

'He was not afraid, he just wasn't ready, and he knew that if he had a hundred years he would be unready still. Too many things to say, too many thoughts he hadn't shaped yet, too much life. So he looked at his hands, and through them he offered up all that was and ever had been: all things he had made, good and bad, all the faces he had touched, all the bright threads that had passed through his fingers in his little time. It was the best he could do, it would have to be enough.'


James Murphy Teresa wrote: "I haven't read any of his other books. I missed an opportunity to hear him speak (it was before I read this book) and at another book event I went to he had canceled ahead of time.

I agree that i..."


I like it that we both collect passages from what we read. Here's what I copied from Bahr's novel, from p123: "Meanwhile, among the chatter and gossip and decorum, the women kept a wary on their old men yonder lest they should somehow slip away again. For the women had a truth of their own they had been robbed once, and would be robbed again if they were not careful. The old soldiers smoking in the shade, whose names and children and destinies they bore, had been taken from them once, had journeyed into hell, then returned into the midst of life--only something had not returned. Some part of them abided still, down among the smoke, and liked it there, had to be there, would not choose to return even if it could. This the women could not forgive. Much was taken, too little returned; distinctions blurred, and the hearts that might have lain like picked roses in the women's hands were buried forever under the stones with the dead."


Teresa I remember that quote because I loved the part about them liking it there and the women not forgiving that -- it's sort of 'unexpected' but that's what makes it so 'real.'


message 11: by Cynthia (new) - added it

Cynthia Great discussion guys. I'm experiencing the book vicariously.


James Murphy Cynthia wrote: "Great discussion guys. I'm experiencing the book vicariously."

Maybe you should try it, Cynthia. Though a Civil War novel it lacks actual battle scenes, but it does contain some violence and a hellish interior, both of which I think you try to avoid in fiction. But it's also very romantic. I think you'd enjoy that, and relish it for the very good fiction it is.


message 13: by Cynthia (new) - added it

Cynthia I can stand psychological torture just not the blood and gore stuff. I've already put it in my tbr pile.


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