Saturday, June 21, 2008
Two days into my summer reading list and I'm already messing with it. I finished Hallam's War and am about to finish Water for Elephants, which will free up some space, so I may add a couple of titles. In the meantime, while searching my TBR stacks for Venusberg, I came across O, How the Wheel Becomes It, also by Anthony Powell. I started it last night and was immediately sucked in. It is a terrific lampoon of writers, publishers, and the whole Life of Letters idea, along the lines of Mauagham's Cakes and Ale or, more recently, McEwan's Amsterdam.
To describe Hallam’s War as an interesting, substantive Civil War novel is to explain both its strengths and weaknesses.
Elisabeth Payne Rosen writes well, knows her subject matter, and has crafted a story that explores the ambiguity of racial and political issues at the center of the Civil War. Through her efforts, the book rises above the requisite hoop skirts, hollerin’, and hacksaws of all Civil War novels, but not by enough to transcend the genre and become a novel of general appeal.
First, in the hoop skirt, or antebellum, section of the story, Rosen includes the necessary Southern belles, genteel society, class structure, loyal house slaves, angry field hands, and King Cotton. But the twist is that the Hallam family has turned its back on the charms of coastal Charleston for the quiet pleasures of their west Tennessee log home. There, Hugh Hallam experiments with modern farming methods in order to produce high quality cotton without destroying the land, with the dream of making his farm profitable without the need for slave labor. It is this angle that makes the book worthwhile.
Second, there is plenty of the typical hollerin’ in the way of demands for secession, complaints from teenagers that the war will be over before they are old enough to fight, rebel yells, and the cries of men wounded in battle. It is Rosen’s detail-laden coverage of the war as it moved through Tennessee that is either the best or worst part of the book, depending on the reader’s inclinations. For Civil War buffs, these details give the book the depth lacking in other novels; for general readers, these sections feel like being trapped in a Ken Burns documentary.
Third, in the hacksaw segment of the book, Serna Hallam, like all Civil War heroines, volunteers in the army hospital where she assists surgeons in amputating limbs using household tools and no anesthesia. Everyone is exhausted, the fields are barren, food is scarce, and profiteers smuggle luxury items to the spoiled elite. Rosen sticks to formula in this part of the story, which, while dramatic, feels like a time killer while waiting for the war, and the story, to wind to an and.
Which is a general problem with any book about a real war – everyone knows how it ends. Rosen chose to end her story with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, rather then the end of war itself, but the resolution of the personal story seems likewise arbitrary. It feels like the Hallams’ story wraps up because Rosen was coming to the end of the book, rather than the book ending because she had come to the end of their story.
For readers enthralled with all things Civil War, Hallam’s War will be a real treat. General readers may find the personal story compelling enough to finish the book, but it is no page-turner.
(Please leave a comment with a link if you would like your review posted here.)