• Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles **** (of 4)

    A yarn as wide as the Texas landscape. It is 1864 and Simon the Fiddler makes a living the best he can by playing jigs, reels, waltzes and hornpipes. It’s not quite as disreputable a profession as being an actor, but a lot of venues include the kinds of saloons and dance halls that the upper classes tend not to frequent. Until the Union Army conscripts him, that is, and he has to play fiddle and soldier for a year. At the war’s so-called conclusion – it doesn’t so much end as degenerate into a kind of barely controlled chaos as Union forces occupy the state of Texas and barely maintain order – Simon teams up with three additional veterans and together they escape their army duties to play music, barely make ends meet, and have adventures along the Gulf Coast and the Mexican border.

    Paulette Jiles evokes of the landscape and era of post Civil War Texas with such acuity you can hear individual birds sing, grasshoppers hum, and feel the heat of an unrelenting sun. The landlords, deadbeats, wild Texans, privileged Union officers, and one very comely nanny fresh from Ireland whose bright eyes and thick hair capture Simon’s attention are as highly credible as the rest of the liberated countryside.

  • The Immortal Irishman by Timothy Egan **** (of 5)

    Immortal-Irishman-2_1024x1024The immortal Irishman is Robert Meagher, surely the most famous and interesting person I’ve never heard of.  Meagher (pronounced Mar) was an incomparably gifted nineteenth century orator and supporter of human rights.  He formed part of a cadre of Irish intellectuals that fomented a failed revolution against British rule at a time when infected potatoes puddled in Irish fields, millions were starving, and British landlords exported wheat and oats form Ireland to England.  In return for defying Queen Victoria and her troops, Meagher was sentenced to death, only at the last moment having his sentence commuted to lifetime banishment in Tasmania.  After many years in virtually solitary exile, he escaped to America, overcame harsh anti-Catholic racism, and spoke his way into becoming a leading general of an Irish brigade in the U.S. civil war.  Lincoln counted him as a confidant and following his wartime leadership of one of the most recognized battalions on either side of the conflict, Meagher became governor of the Montana territory, reluctant to fight Indians because he understood their plight as being in brotherhood with the plight of enslaved Africans and oppressed Irishmen.  Egan’s account of Ireland’s subjugation is exceptionally clearheaded, and his retelling of the Civil War is as compelling as any I have ever encountered.

  • The Good Lord Bird by James McBride *** (of 4)

    The Good Lord Bird 9781594486340BOf course I’ve heard of John Brown, the abolitionist, who tried to start an insurrection and free the slaves by himself.  But, truth is, that is about all I knew of him until reading this fictionalized account of his life.  The beautifully rendered narrator, who I suspect is the one truly fictional character in the book, is a young black boy nicknamed “The Onion.”  Onion is freed from slavery by Brown in the 1850s and lives with John Brown’s army of abolitionist minded children, freed slaves, Indians, Jews, and spotty hangers-on.  Only thing is John Brown mistakes Onion for a girl and thus Onion lives disguised as a girl for several years.  It is not as strange as you think because survival for blacks under the dehumanizing burden of slavery required any possible ruse to avoid being worked to death (or worse) like a flea-infested mule. Onion portrays John Brown as a religious zealot of such ferocity as to be frighteningly fanatical.  Yet, at the same time Brown was the one person in America to move beyond rhetoric regarding the savages of slavery to the very actions necessary required to undo the evil practice.  While Brown’s attempts to overtake Osawatomie, Kansas and Harper’s Ferry, Virginia were folly, the Northern States were very soon to follow his example.

  • Journey to Shiloh by Will Henry *** (of 4)

    A Texas yarn about 7 teenagers who leave hill country to fight for the Confederate Army in the Battle of Shiloh.  Tough and country-wise after growing up rassling horses and fightin’ Comanches the boys bumble their way east across Texas and into Louisiana where they encounter the true south for the first time.  It takes weeks and nearly half a book of adventures and growing up before the boys reach the front lines.  Near the book’s end some story lines get dropped and a few time sequences become jumbled in order to bring the horrible serendipity of warfare to life, but these oversights are forgivable.  The characters are real and the dialogue perfect.  All the more remarkable that the book still reads well considering it was penned more than fifty years ago.

  • March by Geraldine Brooks *** (of 4)

    Mr. March, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, heads south to fight the Confederacy at the opening of Alcott’s novel and returns on Christmas a year later.  This is Brooks’ imaginings of what March would have encountered as an idealistic preacher from Concord heading into the heart of a Civil War.  Not surprisingly, he learns war is hell, slavery is worse, racism is painfully ugly and not the sole purview of southerners, and that his personal attempts at action and intervention are pitifully ineffective.  Look, if you are going to read a book about slavery, by all means begin with Andrea Levy’s The Long Song, the recounting of slave life and uprisings in Jamaica.  Levy’s characters are real people.  Brooks’ has an interesting idea — she won a Pulitzer Prize for this book — but like most of her books the characters in March are uni-dimensional, interesting in a TV sort of way, but utterly forgettable as soon as the book is completed.

  • Gettysburg by Stephen W. Sears

    According to the Times, Jay Winik, “Sears’s reconstruction is “The Civil War equivalent of a modern spy satellite photograph. He hovers above the action, giving us a panoramic view.”

  • Confederates in the Attic: America’s Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz *** (of 4)

    A nice Jewish boy from the D.C. suburbs treks across the south meeting Civil War re-enactors, Daughters of the Confederate States of America, poor-whites with rebel flags flapping from their pick-up trucks and discovers not only hasn’t the Civil War ended in the south, but on the contrary, since the days of integration following the Civil Rights legislation of the 60s, positions on race and north vs. south issues have in fact hardened. This is NOT a dry textbook, but rather a largely humorous, respectful travelogue and visit with people I find repulsive. The author does, too, sometimes, in the same way, say, a Jonathan Raban (a Brit) did when he motored down the Mississippi like Huck Finn only to discover the middle of America was filled with overweight Americans sprawled on folding lawn chairs atop pontoon boats. The only reason the book doesn’t get four stars is it’s about 75 pages too long. Nevertheless, I unreservedly recommend reading the first 275-300 pages. June, 2005.

  • The Civil War by Bruce Catton **** of 4

    I listened to it on tape. It’s a short history of the Civil War. Gettysburg takes about six minutes. The Monitor and Merrimack about two. What makes the book so good, beyond the suspenseful writing (I didn’t know who was going to win the Civil War until the very end of the book), is the multiple perspectives Catton brings to view the war by. He examines the different economies of North and South, the Navies, their alliances, and electoral politics. That means the battles, which so many books focus on, are placed in a much wider context and are not given undue weight. May, 2005

  • The March by E.L. Doctorow **** (of 4)

    The march is General William Tecumsah Sherman’s subjugation of the confederacy as seen through the eyes of carefully crafted, wholly believable, fictitious characters: freed-slaves, plantation owners, plantation wives, army physician, dirt-poor soldiers, and the historical figures they interact with. The plot is compelling and the story-telling is vintage Doctorow, a page turner. August 2007.