28 April 2009

Book Review: The Black Flower

The Black Flower: A Novel of the Civil War
By Howard Bahr
267 pages

I questioned how much I could like this book. The back cover boasts that it is "written with reverent attention to historical accuracy," so when Bahr begins describing the clothes of the soldiers in the first few pages, I imagined the rest of the book would be an account of the intricacies of war. 

This is not a war strategy book. 

Bahr focuses on the lives of particular individuals within the Confederate Army and magically weaves what could almost pass for a series of short journal entries written by different people. The novel is a snapshot of the war, focusing on the bloody battle that took place in Franklin, TN (November 1864) and focuses deeply on the themes of death and personal suffering.

It is gruesome and horrid and has a realistic vulgarity that made me wretch at times. And somehow it is still poetic, poignant, and intense.

One passage I found particularly powerful, not so much for the beauty of the writing but for the reflection it evoked is when the battle commences. After amazing visual imagery and a lengthy buildup to the battle, Bahr shares Bushrod Carter's thoughts as the first shell bursts:
And in the field of trampled grass, amid the false twilight and the rush of living water, Bushrod Carter looked at his hands. He was not afraid now--the worst of that was over, back at the foot of the hills when they could see the long plain stretching out before them and the works where the Strangers waited. 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 he 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 (The Black Flower, Bahr, pg 65, emphasis added).
This battle took place 5 months before the end of the Civil War. How often did these thoughts run through Bushrod's head? And the beauty of that last line--it was the best he could do, it would have to be enough--isn't that what this life is about? I also love the deep symbolism of Bushrod examining his hands. There are so many gospel references to hands: feeling the prints in Christ's hands, Pilate washing his hands of the sentencing of Christ, becoming instruments in His hands.... It adds a deeper element to Bushrod's deathbed deliberation.

I don't think "enjoy" is the right word for this novel; the subject matter is too sobering to be enjoyable. It is beautifully written and I am anxious to read Bahr's other novel The Year of Jubilo: A Novel of the Civil War.

Reader beware: the use of war language is "historically accurate", if not "reverent."

1 comment:

Jason and Lissa said...

This kinda of reminds me of my favorite part in the book Les Miserables. At the end of the 1400-ish pages, Jean Valjean is dying and bequeaths the candlesticks that symbolize the new life he was given by the bishop (symbolizing God of course) after prison, and he says, "They are silver; but to me they are gold, they are diamonds; they change the candles that are put into them into consecrated tapers. I do not know whether the one who gave me them to me is satisfied with me in heaven. I have done what I could." I think if we all feel that way when we die--that although we're not perfect, we have done all we could--we won't be ashamed to stand before our Savior.