Loss and memory after the Civil War

Review Novel


The Judas Field

Howard Bahr

Henry Holt and Company / 292 pages / $24

In his first novel, The Black Flower, Howard Bahr wrote artfully of men in battle during the Civil War. Next, in The Year of Jubilo, he focused superbly on the war's immediate aftermath in a small Southern town.

Now, in The Judas Field, Bahr steps another 20 years further along in history. But he has not left the war behind, nor have his characters. The result is a brooding meditation on loss, memory and the enduring emotional wreckage of combat.

Bahr builds his plot around a morbid sentimental journey, which begins in a small town in Mississippi in early 1885. Spinster Alison Sansing, who has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides that before she dies she wants to find the graves of her father and brother, who died in Tennessee at the Battle of Franklin.

She enlists the help of Cass Wakefield, who also fought at Franklin that day, and who helped bury her loved ones. Two of his former comrades-in-arms tag along as if hypnotized by their common past. They might as well, since all three of the men seem to be sleepwalking through life.

One of the tagalongs is Roger Lewellyn. The other is Lucian Wakefield, who took his last name from Cass at the age of 13, when, as a wandering orphan known only as Lucifer, he latched onto the Confederacy's Army of Tennessee.

None of the three has ever quite recovered from the horrors of Franklin, which historians describe as a sort of miniature Gettysburg. Fought mostly at close quarters, and with appalling losses, it was the dying gasp of the Army of Tennessee.

Bahr fills much of the book with flashback sequences, featuring the soldier's tormented memories of battle. That is when he is at his best.

His language, like his dialogue, is deeply resonant of period and region. Bahr's Southern cadences rival those of a front-porch storyteller, spinning ghastliness into beauty to the metronome creak of a rocking chair, while fireflies burn like shell bursts in the gloom of a humid night. He is capable of casting a lyrical spell even when describing almost unbearable horror.

He captures well the hollowness of the battle's survivors. Cass, a salesman, tends to drink to excess, and on a Christmas night not long before their journey he realizes with despair that, "In this sacred hour, he could remember no single good thing that had happened: not to him, not to Lucian ... not to anyone else he knew."

Lucian copes almost as poorly, dosing himself liberally with laudanum. Roger is also a lost cause. Their temper flares easily. They often break, but never bend.

The war, Bahr writes, "put those who suffered by it all together in a glass jar like so many strange dangerous insects, and they could crawl up and down the glass all they wanted, but they could never reach the other side. By the same token, no one else could enter, so inside the jar they created their own world out of memory and grief."

He intends for the description to also apply to Alison Sansing, but he never quite convinces us that she belongs, even though he allows Cass to make a case for her in a small speech to Lucian.

This shortcoming prevents her grief from ever becoming as fully realized as that of the battle veterans. As vividly as their torments and memory are portrayed, Alison's come across as pale and thin by comparison.

Bahr is also a little too effective for his own good at portraying the listlessness of the veterans as they progress zombie-like through their present lives. The result is that the novel, like its characters, is at its liveliest and most interesting when it dwells in the past.

Dan Fesperman is a reporter for The Sun, now on Leave. He is an award-winning novelist.

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