Book Review: The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun

This was a sneak peek at The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun, a novel by Lavonne Mueller, (Opus Books, 304 pages) originally posted in December 2012. It is now in print, having been released on April 30. The April 30 date is important, as it was on April 30, 1944 that Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler were married in the bunker beneath the streets of Berlin. The next day, they would both be dead.


But said Virgilius ‘What dost thou still gaze at?
…I made answer thereupon….’In that cavern where
I held mine eyes with such attention fixed,
I think a spirit of my blood laments
The sin which down below there costs so much.’

Dante, The Inferno, Canto XXIX, Longfellow translation

Was there anyone in history worse than Hitler? Probably. Our ally against him, Josef Stalin is one of the best candidates. But my generation, though once removed, still finds Hitler difficult to approach from any objective point of view. This may be because by seeking objectivity  we somehow neutralize the unspeakable horror that the man unleashed on the world. That horror still haunts from grainy photographs of young men and women that adorn bookcases and fireplace mantels; spectral images of human beings who died fighting him or who succumbed in the showers at Dachau to then have their ashes blacken the sky with the thick, choking reality of death.

What can we say, therefore, about someone who loved Adolf Hitler? Does loving a monster make of you a monster?

Playwright Lavonne Mueller has written a novel that would seem to answer the question, but which actually raises as many questions as it answers. Eva Braun, a young woman who fell for Hitler–whom she calls “Adi”–when he was a rising star, and then spent 12 years as his mistress hidden away from the public eye. After all, the Führer’s image was as one married to Germany, and it wouldn’t be fitting for people–women especially–to see the man on whom the nation was fixated to be romantically linked. So Eva spent many lonely years tucked away in the Berghoff, Hitler’s posh estate in the mountains, or sitting the back row at main attractions while Magda Goebbels, wife of propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, appeared publicly with the Führer as Germany’s informal “first lady.” Why would she subject herself to such a life?

The simplest answer, and the one that comes through int his novel, is that Eva Braun loved, idolized, adored Adolf Hitler. With apologies to Jerry Maguire, Hitler “had her at hello” the first time he met her at Heinrich Hoffman’s photography studio in Munich, where she worked as a young model. After that, there were no more men in her life. Even though she would have to share him with Germany, she was content to do so.

Well, there were times when it got to her. She attempted suicide twice, once with a pistol (she was a bad shot), once with pills. Were these pitiful cries for attention? Perhaps. If so, they worked to some extent. Hitler was moved, and soon began to be more attentive to her needs.

But Hitler had experience with suicidal women. The woman whom many–even Eva–thought was the real love of his life was his niece, Geli Raubel. Though she was 25 years his junior, Hitler was obsessed with the young woman, eventually controlling her movements and possibly subjecting her to deviant sexual acts. Her only escape from him was suicide, which she committed in 1931.

So, when Eva took the pills, the Führer came to comfort her with flowers.

The novel’s time frame is the last two weeks of Eva’s life in the Bunker, that Danteesque cavern where HItler finished out his career as Germany’s chancellor. She narrates, and it becomes apparent that this time beneath the streets of a devastated Berlin is the happiest time of her life. She now has “Adi” close. Oh, yes, the meetings with generals and advisors continue on late at night, but “Adi” is only separated by a wall and will come to her eventually. One quickly surmises that Hitler is living in a state of denial, hoping for a miracle that will never come, unable to accept the fact that it is over.

The narrative is not kind to Magda, the wife of Josef Goebbels. In fact, if we are to believe Eva, Magda spents a great deal of time rutting with this or that visiting officer, perhaps in retaliation for her husband’s much publicized affairs with German actresses. Magda’s shamelessness even extends to allowing herself to be mounted by a staff officer in a shelter while her oldest daughter is in the room. Eva covers the daughter’s eyes and tries to distract her from the grunts and moans.

Eva herself, though ardently devoted and faithful to Adi, suffers from a deep frustration that stems from Adi’s–shall we say–unusual style of lovemaking which leaves her totally unsatisfied. She sometimes finds ways to compensate in the fashion of a good Catholic schoolgirl (which, incidentally, she had been) who knows how to push then envelope just far enough with men so as to maintain “technical” fidelity.

These portions of Eva’s narrative strain credulity, as I am unable to recall any such allegations regarding Magda Goebbels other than an affair she had with one of Hitler’s henchmen, and “rumors” of others. It is doubtful that Magda was the kind of woman who would engage in table top sex in one room while her husband met with staff in an adjoining room.

Eva and “Adi” in happier times. Source: Wikipedia

Yet, there is a sense that I get from this story, and such orgiastic inclusions, that the women in the bunker were perhaps not as much in denial as were Hitler and some of his henchmen. Perhaps the point is that they knew all too well that the end was but days away so the irrepressible life force expressed in a few moments of sexual pleasure was hungrily sought as a means of dealing with the threat of extinction. There is a scene in the streets of Berlin later wherein Eva and an officer come upon two naked SS men engaged in sex with one another on a discarded mattress. They are desperately seeking a few minutes respite from what is certain–Russian tanks but two block away–to be their last few minutes on earth.

The best thing that this novel does is to point up the moral ambivalence, or perhaps the amorality or even moral perversity, of Eva, Magda, and many of the followers of Hitler. Magda and her husband would sooner die than live in a world without their Führer, and so they commit suicide after Hitler and Eva do–only they take the lives of their six beautiful children before doing so. Eva herself achieves her dream to be united with her beloved Adi on the night before they will die, in spite of the fact that her brother-in-law was executed two days before by henchmen of her beloved.  Her chief concern in the last hours is what she will wear for their wedding, while humans are being burned, shot, exploded and ground into asphalt in the streets above them.

Throughout, Eva blames anyone she feels isn’t loyal to the Führer, even his niece and former lover Geli, for letting the man down. People who did not serve him well or rightly simply didn’t understand what or who he was.

This book takes you into a cavernous hell that summons the ghost of Dante, one which attempts answers to some difficult psychological questions, but still leaves you wondering how a man like Hitler could inspire such devotion, even when that devotion clashed with conscience. As a general rule, people aren’t attracted to monsters.

Hitler’s secretary, Traudi Junge, a Braun lookalike who was with the Führer until the end, expressed this conundrum best in a journal written several years following the last night in the bunker:

“I was 22 and I didn’t know anything about politics, it didn’t interest me…. I…was fascinated by Adolf Hitler. He was a pleasant boss and a fatherly friend. I deliberately ignored all the warning voices inside me and enjoyed the time by his side almost until the bitter end. It wasn’t what he said, but the way he said things and how he did things.”

Six million or more human beings would undoubtedly have a very different take on “how he did things.”

Copyright Isaac Morris 2013

Anna Karenina: With love you can’t ask why

Keira Knightlyas the doomed Anna Karenina Her finest performance to date. Photo: FirstShowing.net

I waited for naught for Anna Karenina to make it to Springfield theaters. I don’t know whether AMC thinks we midwestern rubes are too unsophisticated for a classic tale of love and self-destruction or whether we are, in fact, too unsophisticated for a classic tale of love and destruction. But we might have been given the chance to prove or disprove such an hypothesis. But at last I was able to watch Keira Knightley’s Oscar-worthy but overlooked performance as the doomed St. Petersburg socialite, and it was one of the finest translations of a classic work of fiction that I have ever witnessed. The performances by Knightley, Jude Law, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson–not to mention several dozen other cast members–made this stylish set piece a true dramatic tour de force. And Hollywood barely noticed. Talk about rubes.

Anna was required reading in a world literature course I took in college, and I found it surprisingly easy to read in spite of its length. I have re-read it three times since, and it still is as fresh an experience on each return as it was the first time around.

Anna is a book about family, and may well be the story that someone had in mind when coining the phrase “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.”

The setting of the story, St. Petersburg high society in Czarist Russia, may put off some readers. But the landscape of the story, the abiding love of family and the destructive effects of adultery, is as modern as today’s Star magazine. There is one major difference, however. The stigma and social upheaval of adultery that existed in Anna’s world no longer exists. Had Anna strayed today, depending on the legal counsel given prior to walking away, she could have ended up with half the property and landed a spot on a Real Housewives reality show. Her ending was much more grim.

Anna is a respectable woman in a loveless marriage to a respected civil servant. They have a son, whom Anna loves dearly. As the story begins, Anna is leaving to go to her sister’s to help save a marriage. Her brother, Stiva,  has been caught in an affair, and his marriage is on the skids. Anna, renowned for her level headedness, is called upon to restore the domestic tranquility to a family torn by a man’s inability to keep certain things to himself. Not the first time in history such things would happen, nor the last; but in one of the most famous opening lines in any novel, Tolstoy reminds us that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

While away, Anna encounters a brash young soldier, Count Vronsky. The Count, a younger man, is immediately attracted to the beautiful Anna and begins to pursue her aggressively. She is amused at first, and puts off her suitor. It isn’t long, however, before she realizes how hungry she is for just such ardor. That ardor had left her marriage long ago, if in fact it ever existed. Eventually, she succumbs. A subsequent pregnancy forces Anna to face the consequences, which include the loss of her beloved son and her respectability in society. As she and Vronsky continue their relationship, her unhappiness makes her more and more self conscious and aware of the age difference between her and her new lover. She becomes a jealous harridan, which has the effect of driving her lover away.

In the latter half of the book, we witness Anna’s decompensation and eventual self-destruction. This unhappy ending is balanced, however, by a parallel story of two young lovers who find lasting happiness in a marriage that began in love and endured because of it. I was heartened to see that this movie adaptation incorporated the Kitty-Levin counterbalance, something that was usually passed over by filmmakers for the sake of the Anna-Vronsky romance. The story of Kitty and Levin is, perhaps, where the true lesson in Tolstoy’s novel lies.

Anna Karenina is a story about forbidden love and the price that it exacts. While the price was higher in 19th century society, the price in terms of pain and family disintegration is as real today as it ever was when love trumps social strictures. But, as Vronsky says to Anna in this very fine film, “You can’t ask why about love.”

This rube from the midwest really loved the movie version. I just wish I could have seen it in a theater. Thanks, AMC. Thanks a lot.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

Killing Lincoln: Still a best seller, now a National Geographic docudrama

Billy Campbell portrays Abraham Lincoln in the television film ‘Killing Lincoln’ based on the best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly. Actor Billy Campbell makes a convincing Lincoln in “Killing Lincoln,” showing now on the National Geographic Channel. Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/tv-review-killing-lincoln-article-1.1264412#ixzz2LFpl2m9g

Killing Lincoln, by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard is currently Number 7 on the New York Times bestseller’s list for non-fiction books. It has been on the list for 72 weeks. For reference sake, and based on quasi-reliable blog sites, compare this with The DaVinci Code  on the Fiction list–166 weeks–and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil in Non-Fiction–216 weeks. It has a ways to go to beat Midnight’s record, but it is still a publishing phenomenon in spite of–or, who knows?, perhaps because of–the controversy that it stirred up after it appeared.

On Sunday, February 17, the National Geographic docudrama based on the book debuted, narrated / hosted by Tom Hanks. The story was tightly compacted into the two-hour time slot, which means that a lot of interesting stuff was left out. For example, the bit about John Wilkes Booth and Lincoln’s son, Robert,  sharing the same girl—Lucy Hale! Okay, tangential—but salacious! And who doesn’t like their history salacious? But the important elements were all there, and the acting by Billy Campbell–who had to have some real nerve to do Lincoln following so closely upon Daniel-Day Lewis’ soon to be Oscar-winning (yes, you heard it here!) performance, but Campbell makes a quietly compelling Lincoln. Jesse Johnson (son of Miami Vice co-star Don Johnson) was dark, compelling, intelligent, and driven as John Wilkes Booth. The two performances carried the two-hour presentation through the continual narrations by Hanks, a format that could have spelled disaster with lesser talents in the main roles.

Johnson as Booth–Dark and compelling. Source: National Geographic

O’Reilly co-authored his book with Martin Dugard, a New York Times bestselling author of To Be A Runner (Rodale Books, 2011) which talks about his passion for, well, running I guess. Neither O’Reilly nor Dugard are historians (or, apparently, grammarians—some pedant pointed out that Lincoln was said to ‘furl’ his brow and that he should have ‘furrowed’ it). And in the first edition, they had Lincoln sitting in the oval office. There wasn’t one until 1909. Yes, mistakes were made.

When I first reviewed Killing Lincoln over a year ago, I wrote O’Reilly about one of the errors in his book. Of course, it was tangential to the story. The nuns in high school were always complaining that stuff I brought up in class was beside the point! Anyway, in the last chapter where they are talking about the aftermath of the assassination, I read that General Custer’s body was the only one not mutilated after the battle of the Little Big Horn. If you’re interested—and who wouldn’t be for heaven’s sake?—the only body not mutilated was that of Captain Myles Keogh, whose horse Comanche was touted as the only survivor of the battle. (He wasn’t, though. Most of the Sioux and Cheyenne—remember? They survived!).

Bill and Marty wrote back and thanked me for pointing out this egregious error.

Hah! Okay, that was a blatant lie. My e-mail went to cyber no-man’s land. I fully expect to read about Custer’s pristine corpse even in the “corrected” version!

So, Killing Lincoln has—or had—factual errors not worthy of Doris Kearns Goodwin. It is Wikipedia to her Britannica. Agreed.

But it is still a damn good read. I know that as an academic I am supposed to be upset by shoddy scholarship; but as a writer I also appreciate a story that moves, entertains, and educates (however imperfectly) in the process. Killing Lincoln does that, in Grisham style. Not everyone can suffer the lengthy and well-documented style of Doris Kearns Goodwin (although Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is one of the finest books about Lincoln I have ever read). But anyone reading Killing Lincoln will find that they have a new appreciation for the reality of what happened in this country on April 14, 1865—even though Lincoln never sat once in the oval office.

Perhaps one of the best things, and most useful as well as educational, to come as a result of the collaboration with National Geographic is a great website that takes you in a very interesting manner through the conspiracy. This will make a great addition to many school curricula, and since O’Reilly was as educator that’s as it should be.

Copyright Isaac Morris 2013

Sneak Preview: “Nobody joins a cult”

Stories from Jonestown, by Leigh Fondakowski, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, 334 pages)

Some of the children of Jonestown– “…the good intentions ended in such a horrific way.” Image: California Digital Library (cdlib.org)

The deaths of more than 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 have been addressed before in this venue (See “November 18, 1978: The Horror of Jonestown,” posted November 15, 2012). Shortly thereafter, I received from the University of Minnesota Press an advanced reading copy (ARC)  of Stories from Jonestown, a book which–after reading it–I believe will become the capstone for the literature on this topic.

Why? This book is a collection of interviews with the actual survivors and other participants. This is important because most people, when they hear of Jonestown, or the Branch-Davidians, or any of the various headline-grabbing “cults” adopt a myopic view. These people are all “wackos,” “religious nuts,” people who are so far from the mainstream of humanity so as not to deserve consideration. Stories from Jonestown reveals the true picture of this tragedy, one for which those who entered into the bargain with the devil have to claim some responsibility but one in which most of the members were decent, intelligent human beings who just wanted to create a better world.

“Nobody joins a cult; nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them” intoned Debbie Layton (who escaped Jonestown 7 months before the end) in the opening scenes of Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006), and this book by playwright Leigh Fondakowski drives home that point quite clearly.

Yes, I said “playwright.” Fondakowski’s claim to fame is as one of a dozen or so members of the Tectonic Theater Project that produced “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming. The play drew on hundreds of interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyoming and the surrounding area, news reports, and other sources. The play was also produced as a movie for HBO.

Stories from Jonestown is a compilation of interviews conducted for a similar project involving Jonestown, a play called “The People’s Temple, which was eventually performed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Theatre Company, and the Guthrie Theater.

Whether you are interested in a play about this topic or not, if you want to understand the horror that was Jonestown with all of its human dimensions, you will want to read this book. Here you encounter first-person accounts of survivors, escapees, and members of Congressman Leo Ryan’s entourage whose visit to the jungle precipitated the violence that led to 918 deaths. Here you will meet men and women whose lives were initially made better by their participation in the temple, at least in the early days. Men and women of intelligence, vigor, and dedication. Most of them were decent human beings who just happened to think they had finally found a way for all people, black, white, or whatever, to live together in peace. They just had the misfortune to hitch their star to a man who eventually became unhinged.

To accuse them of having been “brainwashed” is too easy, according to one survivor:

“Brainwashing lets them off the hook morally. But it also takes away their humanity. They they are just robots, as if it was just a matter of mind control. To me, it is much more meaningful and humanizing to say: they made choices and they made bad choices.”

Among the most quoted in this book is Stephan Jones, the only full-blooded son of Jim and Marceline Jones. I tended to vacillate in my opinion of Stephan, who was feared by many in Jonestown as being one of his father’s ‘enforcers’ (although this is downplayed in his interviews). Jones was in Georgetown with the basketball team the night the lights went out in Jonestown, having refused to follow his father’s order to return. His mother begged him to, but he still refused. He has been conflicted ever since, wondering if he might have been able to prevent disaster. Later, he recounts how his father’s voice can be heard saying, “Mother, don’t do this.” I had always been of the impression that Jones was talking to some mother who objected to killing her child. Stephan reveals that Jones was talking to Marceline, the only person he called “mother,” who was trying to stop the killing but was restrained by Jones’ thugs. Somehow, that made me feel a little better about this woman who married a lunatic. Unfortunately, her protestations were useless.

The road that let to Jonestown was paved by the culture of the sixties, a culture in which people were questioning our fundamental attitudes–especially racism. The dream of a world in which black and white could live together in love was very real, and the social gospel preached by this Indiana-born preacher struck a chord in the hearts of many who had lost their way in life. There were many good things about the People’s Temple in the beginning, and this comes out in many of these interviews. These people were bonded, were very close, and were–at least at first–very happy. What, exactly, led it to go so wrong?

“We were going to convert the world to brotherhood. And that was it,” says one survivor. “That was the dream. That’s why it’s been so hard for me to talk or speak about People’s Temple, because the good intentions ended in such a horrific way. That’s why I don’t like to talk. I don’t like to talk, and I never could. How could I tell a fantasyland story with that ending?”

If anything is to be learned from Jonestown, it is that ideologies matter. I cite this horrific occurrence to educate my students in World Religions not to take seriously the attacks made on religion because of James Warren Jones. Jones did not preach religion, he hijacked it in order to preach his gospel of socialism. The Peoples Temple was perhaps the last bastion of the ‘social gospel’ movement that began in the early 20th century, but by the time Jones died he was a self-proclaimed Marxist-Communist who worshipped Chairman Mao and who sought his last refuge in Russia (they wouldn’t touch him).  He had long ago abandoned faith in God, if in fact he ever really had it.

In the end, Jones was cremated and his ashes scattered over the ocean from an airplane. No one will ever be able to create a shrine out of the last resting place of a man who sold hope but delivered insanity.

Stories from Jonestown is scheduled for release February 1, 2013.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

The House of Disorder – Who Hasn’t Lived There?

This review of the House of Order first appeared March 17, 2012. In the past week, the author–John Paul Jaramillo–was recognized as one of the top 10 new Latino authors by “Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature”. Jaramillo has reviewed for The Morris Chair. Congratulations, John Paul!


The House of Order, by John Paul Jaramillo, is billed as a “composite,” and is a series of short stories linked by a familial network whose complex relationships become more or less clear as you read them all. It is apparent that these stories were written at different times, like snapshots taken from memory, and then placed, at first haphazardly,on the mind’s refrigerator. Later, they are arranged in some order that makes sense to the author and which will, hopefully, make sense to the visitor. We put memories in such places because they touch us deeply and we prize them in some fashion. It is a rare instance when they touch the hearts of others–but in The House of Order, they touched me.

The family Ortiz puts the “fun” in dysfunctional. The men are frequently abusive, the women, though mostly compliant, carry on with inner strength to provide some semblance of “order” to The House of Disorder which this life really is. The children–like the most frequent (although not the only) narrator, Manito–are getting further away from the old ways (at one point, the Abuelita–“grandma”–complains, “Goddamn kids don’t know their own language!”). Violence bubbles away beneath the surface of their lives, to burst open at any time. The setting of their lives is forlorn, the most popular color of their vehicles primer, the foundation of their lives burnished with rust.

Jaramillo can evoke atmosphere with a skill that I, quite frankly, envy. Consider this description of the lives the Ortiz family leads, as narrated by Manito:

…around Huerfano County “deserted” means losing a ride out to the lanes for work in the onion fields. Quitting school to work and contribute to the mortgage. Ignitions that won’t fire and friends who won’t come around. Cousins dropped off from New Mexico to share beds and food. Half fixed televisions for Saturday morning cartoons and radios smashed before the World Series. Couches and chairs dropped onto back porches gone un-mended and machine parts and tools sacrificed to the rust of early winters. Here it means CF&I Steel picking up and closing offices, union negotiations breaking down. Husbands who aren’t faithful. Fathers dying. Lies and stories half-told and then forgotten unless pressed and pushed.

The family includes Manito, and his brother Romes (who really isn’t his brother). Manito’s father, Relles, isn’t in the picture, although we learn something of him (he is a sometime narrator). Relles doesn’t end up well. The phrase “crash site” pops up occasionally, and such an occurrence is said to mark the sad end of Relles. In any event, the person to whom Manito looks for any sort of paternal guidance is the hapless Ernesto (“Neto”), Relles’ brother. He is hardly the best role model, but it is clear that he loves the boy. Neto is a man who preaches a good work ethic, but falls short of it and,like so many in this House of Order, turns to drink to his detriment (and to the detriment of those around him).

Jaramillo can evoke emotion with a rare economy of words. After the grandfather, Santiago (“Jefe”) becomes angry with his wife, Cordelia (“Jefita”, aka Abuelita), he drags her “by the forearm and then the hair in a frightening dance:”

And as he slapped her face the house went dead quiet. No television or laughter. No boys crying or calling for their mama. Later as the Jefita walked the backyard to smoke her cigarettes and stared up into the cloud-infested skies, she thought back to her father’s words about the Jefe and his kind.

Love is there, mixed up with the violence. It is clear at some point, when anger erupts between Santiago and his brother Metidio during a jailhouse visit that Cordelia pulls the soul strings in the family. She quiets the two, shaming them into realizing that they are, in the final analysis, brothers and are all either of them have.

There are times when, because of the way these stories are stitched together, it becomes difficult to assess just who is talking. In many cases, the story is narrated by the young Manito. In one story, I was surprised to find near the end that the narrator was Manito’s father, Relles. The more I read, I was eventually able to determine by the context who was talking. Sometimes, the story is rendered in the third person, even if Manito (“the boy”) is the subject. However, any one of these stories could stand on its own and still convey the power of what is in the writer’s heart. Standing together, they present a challenge not unlike a jigsaw puzzle–but a challenge that I, for one, was willing to meet given the skill with which Jaramillo creates the pieces.

I hope this book, these stories, will not be pigeonholed as “Latino” lit. It is true that they speak perhaps most persuasively to Mexican-Americans because the picture is one they can better relate to (the setting, in time, is recent–from the 60s through at least the early 90s, as near as I can tell). But the story speaks to anyone with a family that leaves something to be desired, where there is love, hate, or a combination of the two. And today, when more and more people find themselves unemployed, even those in the more comfortable middle class are finding that primer is not such a bad color.

I get the strange feeling, reading these stories, that I am experiencing something fresh and that someday I may (if I live long enough) just see the name John Paul Jaramillo in an anthology of short stories, or a novel by same in a college literature class as required reading. I hope so. I think he has the stuff.

However, if this happens, I hope it is in an American Literature class, not just a Latino Literature class. These stories speak to all of us.

Rating 3/5
Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris (Originally posted March 17, 2012)

REPRISE: “Nobody expected this kind of . . . mess.”

He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

THIS WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON JUNE 13, 2012.

A mother’s son lies dead. Source: http://civilwarresources.net/

War is hell.

War is personal.

These two points hit you like a sledge hammer in Jeff Shaara’s novel, A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh (Random House, 2012). A Blaze of Glory is to the battle of Shiloh what Saving Private Ryan is to D-Day—a shocking dose of reality for anyone who clings to romantic notions about war in any age.

It began 2 months after the union army and navy under General Ulysses S. Grant took out Forts Henry and Donelson, thus opening up Tennessee to northern armies and driving confederate forces to the south. General Albert Sydney Johnston took his army south towards Corinth, Mississippi. Grant’s army moved south, intent on besieging the rebels there. But General Johnston had other plans.

Johnston was one of the South’s most lauded generals, and historians to this day debate what might have been the outcome had he and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson not died early in the war. Our country might be a very different place today.

Johnston wasn’t going to wait for the union army to hit him in Corinth. Instead, he marched some fifty thousand of his men north and surprised about the same number of Grant’s men while they were camped around a little building known as Shiloh Church, a few miles from the Tennessee River and a place called Pittsburg Landing.

The attack caught the union completely by surprise, and during the first day soldiers under Generals Sherman and Grant were brutally driven back to the river and nearly overcome. It was only the death of General Johnston that saved them: his successor in the field, Pierre Beauregard—the “hero” of Fort Sumter—decided as dusk fell that he could rest his men, so certain was he of victory. He was reviled ever after for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. During the night, union forces were reorganized and reinforcements arrived. The following day, the rebels were driven back to Corinth over the remains of the thousands who died the day before.

To say “war is hell” is almost a cliché . We know that already, right? No. We think we do—but unless you have been there you can’t possibly understand. The American civil war is one of those engagements we think of as shoot ‘em up Westerns on television—exciting, romantic, colorful, and filled with adventure. Every summer, hundreds of civil war re-enactors in their blue or grey wool uniforms, accompanied by a bevy of belles in their hoop skirts, travel around calling forth the atmosphere of the 19th century. Even central Illinois, where there was never a battle fought during the war, is host every year to Civil War encampments such as General Grierson Days in Jacksonville, which feature mock battles with deafening cannon, cavalry charges, and infantry engagements. All in good fun.

But as Shaara clearly conveys, there was nothing fun about it. Nothing Dante conjured in his Inferno could approach the horror of Shiloh.

About one hundred thousand Americans faced off along the Tennessee River on April 6-7, 1862. The battle moved towards the river on day one, and then on day two the union drove back against the confederates. Body parts lay in the field, men lay screaming and moaning. On the second day, soldiers were forced to walk over the dead and dying, and the smell made many retch as they walked on piled up corpses, slippery adipose tissue, and insect-covered carcasses to kill even more men. When the smoke cleared, about four thousand were dead, sixteen thousand had been wounded (horrifically, many with the loss of limbs), and several thousand were simply unaccounted for (a good number skedaddled!). In all, one quarter of the armies was dead, mutilated, or missing.

There were not a lot of photographers there to capture what took place at Shiloh: had there been, readers around the country would likely have clamored for an end to it the way we did when we saw pictures of what was occurring in Vietnam. As it was, the horror became little more than headlines for most of the country—so mothers never pictured what their children went through and the slaughter continued for three more years. By the time it ended, about six hundred thousand Americans would be dead.

Shaara makes this hell personal.As he did with Gods and Generals,Shaara tells the story from the point of view of the participants—among them Generals Grant, Sherman, and Johnston, a cavalryman who rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest, and an infantryman with the union army. Each man could only see a small part of the battlefield, could only see the man or men immediately in front of him, men who threatened, men they shot or sliced with bayonet or saber. The omniscient view of battle was for Gods and generals alone—but even the generals couldn’t fathom what was going on in time to stop one of the most horrific slaughters in American warfare up to that time.

In the people whose points of view we encounter we sense fear, confusion, rage, hunger, and an idealism that is hard for us to understand today. An idealism that would allow men to march into fusillades that would decimate their lines, only to line up again and continue on. The stakes were of the most radical and epoch changing. North and South were, truly, two different cultures and the civil war was, in the eyes of many in the South, a battle to see which culture would survive. Shaara sums up this attitude in a speech by an officer named Isham Harris, formerly Tennessee governor and, at Shiloh, an officer in the confederate army:

The South is one nation. We share so much, our beliefs, our culture, and we are willing to wage war for the right to hold to that, to preserve everything that we are. The North . . . they are mixed breeds, a mongrel dog beside a purebred hound. They share nothing that we share, no identity, no culture. They farm in Illinois and they run factories in Boston. If I go to Charleston or Atlanta, I know what I will find, how the people will regard me. I am the same as the man I see. But if a man in Minnesota travels to New York or Boston, he is in another world, isolated. What cause do they share? It is not possible they have a common bond. And now, because they outnumber us, they elect a president who does not represent anything of the South, and instead of reaching out and finding common ground . . . instead of being a leader, he orders his generals to bring their soldiers to our towns, to force us to become . . . them.

It has been a while since I have read four hundred plus pages with such intensity, and I can’t recall reading a book that made me cringe over descriptions of the horrors of the battlefield as this one does. But along with the horror, we witness the humanity. We are touched by these young men who launch headlong into fire and smoke, touched when they turn in terror and run, touched when they are forced to kill and then regret having done so. When Albert Sydney Johnston falls from his horse and exsanguinates from a wound that a tourniquet could have prevented, his aides find in his pocket a half-eaten sandwich that had been fixed for him by a woman in Nashville who admired him as a Southern gentleman. We sense the panic as soldiers from Sherman’s divisions drop their weapons and flee for the river, some never to be seen again. And we look on with admiration as Nathan Bedford Forrest leads a cavalry charge to stop pursuing Yankees, only to find that he is suddenly alone facing several thousand infantrymen. Still, he rides on—and lives to talk about it.

Some might complain that this isn’t history–it is fiction. Perhaps. Shaara’s voluminous research notwithstanding, one has to admit that the dialogue is the stuff of imagination. But it is plausible. It is grounded in original sources. History only tells us the facts. For the humanity of it all, fiction is the most viable vehicle.

A Blaze of Glory is to be the first in a trilogy. I eagerly await the next installment.

Rating (4/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

REPRISE: A rare experience for the soul (assuming, of course, that you have one)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MAY 15, 2012. This is a spiritual journey suitable for a Christmas day.

I’ve read many good books, many bad books, and many mediocre books over the course of my lifetime. There is a fourth category, however, which I call “Books-That-Stir-Your-Soul” (BTSYS). You know, the ones that start something warm coursing down your chest, speaking to you in a way you never knew possible, and making you conscious in a new way. Books in this category are few, but include Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Faulkner’s Light in August and As I Lay Dying, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Your list will probably differ, but you get the idea.

There is now an addition to my BTSYS list, a novel by Marilynne Robinson called Gilead(Picador, New York, 2004). This is not a new book, but I only encountered it upon reviewing Marilynne Robinson’s recent book of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books.  In the process, I found myself in awe of Ms. Robinson’s ability to express the ineffable with words that wrap themselves around you and then pull tight the knots of meaning in an unforgettable way.

Marilynne Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Gilead won her a Pulitzer, and her latest book — When I Was A Child I Read Books — has been reviewed on this site. Her message goes against the grain in a society that only believes what it can verify empirically.

The book’s title refers to a place, a small community in Iowa, not far from the Kansas border. The time frame is the early 1950s. The narrator is a man named John Ames, a seventy-six (soon to be seventy-seven) year old Congregationalist minister. The entire book is a letter to his six-year old son.  John’s heart is giving out, and he will soon die. In the letter, he is telling his young son—born of a late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman—about himself, his life, his family, and his faith.

In this letter, Ames confronts his family’s history. He is the son of a preacher, whose grandfather was an abolitionist preacher during the years of “Bloody Kansas.” His grandfather hovers over this story and reminiscences abound about how the old man rode with John Brown and how he sometimes stood in the pulpit with a pistol and bloody clothing. These were the stories John Ames heard from his father, but all he remembered about Grandpa was the way the old man would look at him, as if knowing what was in his mind, and how he had a habit of just taking stuff from other people. The people around Gilead just came to accept the old man’s idiosyncrasies.

The love story between Ames and his wife, who showed up at a service on a Pentecost and who seemed to be taken by the much older man’s kind and gentle ways, is the reredos behind the story: the curtain is parted only slightly in his portrayal of the woman, but she remains largely a mystery to us. We do know that she loved John enough to give him a child in his old age and to fill his life with love long after he lost his first wife and child. When the ne’er do well son of his closest friend, a Presbyterian minister he grew up with, arrives back in Gilead John begins to notice that his wife and son seem taken by the younger man and John’s creeping mortality begins to work on his fears for the future.

The themes that streak though this novel include respect, something people had for one another in earlier times; and light. Images are constantly appearing about the light, and it intrudes upon life in the most unexpected moments, such as when his young son and a friend are playing in the sprinkler:

The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine. That does occur in nature, but it is rare… I’ve always loved to baptize people, though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and splash involved in the way we go about it. Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people  ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.

The phrase “in the way we go about it” refers to the fact that John’s denomination baptizes by sprinkling, not immersion. This issue and many other religious questions pop up in his letter, only to make very evident that there is a real difference between his faith lived and that same faith observed from outside. This is why atheists as well as Christians should read Gilead. Much of what those who attack Christianity base their attacks on are misunderstandings. For example, when confronted with a sincere question about salvation, particularly the famously Calvinist notion that God has pre-determined who is saved and who is damned before they are born, John addresses this question with a startling lack of dogmatism and comes down decidedly on the side of a merciful God.

John Ames is not a man who bases his life on dogma. He is a believer who understands the intricacies of faith and does not rest on its supposed certainties. And, in spite of the fact that Christianity is often seen as a life-denying faith, John’s statement in this letter to the child he will not see grow up makes it quite clear that his faith is anything but. In fact, faith is the element in his life that adds the sparkle to existence.

“Remembering my youth,” writes John, “makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it…Oh, I will miss the world!”

This is a book to ponder, to read and re-read, and to carry through life as we grow older and find ourselves feeling the need to explain why we are the way they are to those we are about to leave behind. Most people don’t really think about it, however. What a shame. Letters like this from parents a just might help to make our children better human beings.

Unfortunately, the notion of what a “better human being” is may seem strange to a world that demands empirical demonstrations for every concept. If you are among those, don’t read this book. Unless you want to rethink some of your basic assumptions.

Rating (5/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012