In Andersonville depressing facts become depressing fiction

MacKinlay Kantor’s story of  the Confederacy’s infamous prisoner of war camp  opens the day Ira Chaffey learns of plans for a POW camp on land adjoining his.

In the tent city that was Andersonville Prison Camp, captured Union soldiers wait out the war
Historic photographs shows life in the Andersonville prison camp

It ends with Ira walking through the empty Andersonville camp site after the Confederacy’s defeat.

Between the two events, Ira and his daughter Lucy are forced to helplessly endure the stench of the camp.

 Andersonville by MacKinlay Kantor

T.Y. Crowell, 1955. 767 pages. 1955 bestseller #3. My grade: B+.

Most of book is biographical sketches about individual soldiers, some real, some fictional.

Some were decent people before the war, others were villains.

In Andersonville, each is placed in conditions that bring out the worst in everyone.

Prisoners didn’t even have shelter from the elements, let alone adequate food, water, clothing, medical care.

Kantor’s work is well-researched, but not academic. Some of the individual vignettes are superb.

As a novel, however, the work is a failure.

For one thing, there are simply too many characters to keep track of.

And Kantor doesn’t use quotation marks, so it’s hard to keep track of who is speaking in a given scene even if you recognize the character.

Worst of all, Kantor’s graphic depiction of the extent of human depravity is overwhelming.

While novels don’t require happy endings, they should leave open the possibility that different choices would have lead to different outcomes.

Andersonville doesn’t do that.

© 2015 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Gordon Keith Piles Up Implausibilities

Thomas Nelson Page’s Gordon Keith is a novel you’ll be glad to have read, but much happier if you never begin reading it.  (The illustrations below from the novel are more entertaining.)

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The title character is the son of a Southern gentleman. Sidelined by his war injuries, General Keith is sent to England to represent the Confederacy. He takes his son along.

In England, Gordon meets one Yankee, Norman Wentworth, who will become his lifelong friend; another, Ferdy Wickersham, who will become his lifelong enemy; and a little girl who will grow up to become the second love of his life.

Page piles up coincidences the way a logger piles up cord wood. He has his rural, Southern hero tramping the hills on engineering surveys one week, leaving his card in New York drawing rooms the next.

Page doesn’t do any better with characterization than he does with plot.

Gordon’s honor code generally takes the form of demanding satisfaction of anyone who disagrees with him. Gordon wins the respect of men by ever so politely knocking out his opponents.

Page is even less successful with his female characters than with the men.

When Gordon promises his young bride they will share their home with his aged father and equally elderly town doctor, according to Page, she’s thrilled.

If that strikes you as plausible, you’ll probably like Gordon Keith.

Gordon Keith
By Thomas Nelson Page
lllustrated by George Wright
Published 1903
1903 bestseller #2
Project Gutenberg eBook #14068

© 2013 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Long Roll buries romance beneath history

The Vedette
The Vedette

The Long Roll is a long novel in search of a plot.

The story opens with the passage in 1860 of the Botetourt Resolutions declaring Virginia’s willingness to secede from the Union if that becomes necessary.

When war starts the following year, some of Botetourt County’s finest men serve under the command of Stonewall Jackson. Mary Johnson marches her readers with the Jackson troops three years and nearly 800 pages from first Manassas to the Wilderness campaign in 1864.

Keeping track of who’s who among dozens of characters is tricky, and flipping back through page-long paragraphs is not a good option.

the lovers embrace in illustration by Wyeth
The Lovers

An eccentric, Bible-thumping, lemon-sucking disciplinarian without a trace of personal magnetism, Jackson is not an ideal protagonist for a novel. The romantic subplot in which  the lovers meet fewer than a half-dozen times in the novel is equally exciting.  Before the story is half over, the invented elements collapse under the weight of history.

If Johnson had stuck to history, the book might not have been better, but it would have been more honest. As it stands, The Long Roll is a novel only the most loyal of Civil War buffs can really enjoy.

The Long Roll
by Mary Johnston
Illus. by N. C. Wyeth
Houghton Mifflin Co.
1911 bestseller #7
Project Gutenberg E-book  # 22066
©2011 Linda Gorton Aragoni

House Divided is Good — and Long

House Divided deserves to be dusted off and reread. Ben Ames Williams gives us believable characters, high drama, and superb dialogue, all resting on an extensive base of facts about  the War Between the States.

Although the Currain family of Virginia own slaves, they are skeptical of secessionist propaganda and assertions that the South can whip the North. When letters are found revealing that their father was Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather, the five adult Currains are shattered. Each attempts to find some way of living down the horrible shame of their kinship to “the black ape.”

As Williams follows the Currains through the war, his characters take the reader close to historical figures like Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth without taking his eye off the Currains. As he shows his characters’ quite ordinary responses to extraordinary situations, readers learn details of daily life in the Confederacy. A less skillful writer would have crammed the facts into fat paragraphs of description.

The novel’s message that “most of us, in the end, stand with our own people,” is worth remembering as we send American soldiers into foreign combat.

If you can heft this whopping novel (1500+ pages), you’ll find House Divided worth reading.

House Divided, a novel of the Civil War
By Ben Ames Williams
Houghton Mifflin, 1947
1514 pages
#7 on 1947 bestseller list
My grade: A-
© 2006 by Linda Gorton Aragoni