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More than History: A Novel about the American Civil War moves and instructs us, by Andrew Hook

Scottish Review, 26 September 2017

‘Into Enemy Arms’ by Rex Burns (Black Opal Books)

In recent weeks the American civil war has been much in the news. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the ongoing arguments over the statues of confederate generals such as Robert E Lee and ‘Stonewall’ Jackson have heightened public and media interest in the meaning and legacy of that bitter and lethal conflict.

At the same time, the success of the televised version of Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell books – not to mention her Reith lectures on historical novels – has meant that the particular qualities of that fictional form have been widely debated. As a result I suspect that most readers would agree that historical novels, combining imaginative fiction and creativity with historical accuracy and reality, may vivify the historical past in a manner that mainstream historical writing, however well-documented, cannot match. The way in which historical fiction can achieve such an outcome will, I hope, emerge from this review of ‘Into Enemy Arms.’

Rex Burns is a successful American author of detective fiction. His first novel – ‘The Alvarez Journal’ – was awarded an Edgar Allan Poe Prize for the ‘best first mystery’ of 1977, and a later work – ‘The Avenging Angel’ – became a film starring Charles Bronson. In all, Burns has published some 16 police procedural or private detective novels. However, ‘Into Enemy Arms’ is something different.

It is an historical novel set in the years of the American civil war of 1861-65. Its narrative is located in an intriguing section of north-eastern Virginia encompassing the Eastern Shore – a narrow peninsula jutting out into Chesapeake Bay on its western side, the Atlantic Ocean on its other, eastern side. Its northern border abuts on the state of Maryland. Burns succeeds brilliantly in evoking the detail of this setting in terms of both its land and seascape. It is a wholly rural world. Here we read of one plantation, some isolated farms, and a single village store. But it is an ideal setting for the story Burns wishes to tell.

In 1861, the two counties of the Eastern Shore were, in terms of historical reality, a kind of microcosm of the entire United States. The burning political issue of the day had become whether the southern slave-holding states should secede from the union if that was the only way to prevent abolition. Virginia had always been a southern slave-holding state and thus favoured secession, but in this remote northern corner, while one county agreed, the other wished to remain in the union. Thus the stage for conflict was set.

The novel’s protagonist is a young widow, Lydia Sensabaugh. After her husband’s death, Lydia struggles to work her farm. But there is no question of employing a slave. Lydia has always been morally opposed to slavery. But that does not mean she’s an abolitionist. She knows that a group of ex-slaves are farming not far away from her land, but she has never had any contact with them.

The novel actually opens with the briefest of prologues in which Lydia is described as seeing, one misty night in March 1861, strange yellow lights flickering briefly above the water in the creek beside her home. On the opening page of chapter one, Lydia is still trying to understand what these lights could mean. The lights appear again from time to time in the novel, but neither Lydia nor her friends are ever able to account for them. However, following the novel’s final page, an author’s note tells us that a branch of the so-called ‘underground railway,’ running up through the Eastern Shore Peninsula, had allowed escaping slaves find freedom through Maryland and Delaware.

The subtlety of this opening and closing of the novel is characteristic of Burns’s handling of his book’s central moral issues. When news of Fort Sumter and the opening of hostilities in the civil war finally reaches Lydia’s small community, there is no unanimity in reactions. Most people seem to support the confederacy. Lydia respects and understands their view even if she is not inclined to share it. All hope for a very short war. (Young men rush to enrol in the confederate army in case the war is over before they have a chance to take part in it.) The emerging atmosphere of a country now at war is compellingly conveyed.

But Burns is about to intensify his protagonist’s problematic situation. Lydia’s section of the Eastern Shore in due course falls under the control of union forces. A figure she had encountered earlier turns out to be a union officer. But he is meticulous in ensuring that she is treated with the respect required for a civilian ‘enemy.’ (Okay, the reader quickly sees what is about to happen, but after all this is an immensely readable novel, not a history of the civil war.)

Throughout the rest of the book, Burns shows effectively how the impact of this increasingly bloody war dominates every aspect of people’s lives. Northern and southern states are soon engaged in a desperate struggle. But that division exists at every level – as here on the Eastern Shore – down to and including within individual families. For Lydia, however, surrounded by supporters of the confederacy, but in love with a union soldier, the situation has a specially demanding harshness and poignancy.

Captain Mason is soon back with his New York regiment taking part in the ever more costly campaigns which, in the long years that follow, provide both confederate and union armies with hard-fought victories and defeats. Thus the reader is in a position to share Lydia’s seemingly unending search for knowledge about the progress of the war. Letters from the front are few and far between. She can only read occasional local newspapers with their growing lists of dead and wounded. But gradually the painful, lethal progress of this first of ‘modern’ wars emerges – from the Bull Run battles to Antietam, to Fredericksburg, to the Wilderness, to Cold Harbor and Petersburg.

‘Into Enemy Arms’ succeeds in a variety of ways—a range of convincingly portrayed characters, both major and minor, a strikingly vivid sense of place, dramatic scenes such as Lydia’s encounter with a freed African-American woman, or her experience of the turmoil of Washington at war, where a wounded Mason is in hospital. But above all it succeeds, as all good historical novels do, by making history itself become no longer history, but a living, shared reality. The thoughts, feelings, impulses and reactions of individual men and women, in specific historical circumstances, move and instruct us.

Thus reading this novel, I believe, makes us better understand why many Americans, not exclusively from the south, are not prepared to forget or disrespect those thousands of confederate soldiers who – like their union compatriots – fought and died so bravely, however misguided or wrong we may regard their cause. And I suspect that such concern may well extend to at least some of the statues of their defeated generals.