Sunday, October 9, 2011

Book Review: Devil's Dream by Madison Smartt Bell

(Blogger Note: This review was published in the October, 2011 issue of LAMLight, the newsletter of the Lynchburg Academy of Medicine)

  This is a fascinating historical novel depicting the life of Nathan Bedford Forrest.  As a Virginian all of my life, the American Civil War has always been an interest.  I guess it can be forgiven if as a child growing up during the Civil War Centennial I thought the majority of the war was fought in Virginia, with the occasional foray into Maryland and Pennsylvania.  Spending eighteen years in Richmond reinforced that notion.  Driving past the statues of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jeb Stuart every morning on Monument Avenue makes one think that all of the major personalities fought or died in Virginia.  It has been almost astonishing to me to learn that the “War of Northern Aggression” was fought fiercely all over the South and that there were major players elsewhere that deserve historical mention alongside Lee, Stuart, Longstreet and Jackson. 

   Madison Smartt Bell is a native of Tennessee (I wonder if he thinks the whole war was fought in his state?) and received his M.A. from Hollins College.  He now lives in Baltimore and teaches at Goucher College.  He is known for meticulously researched historical fiction and his eighth novel,   All Soul’s Rising, was a finalist for the National Book Award in the 1990s. 

   Nathan Bedford Forrest is an intriguing figure.  He came from modest means and made a fortune before the war with land investment and as a slave trader.  He enlisted in the Confederate army as a private and rose to the rank of Lieutenant General by war’s end. He had no military training but devised aggressive cavalry techniques and maneuvers.  He often argued with his better trained superiors over tactics.  The most famous disagreement was with General John Bell Hood preceding the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee, ground covered very well in The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks.

  The author does an outstanding job of capturing the contradictions in Forrest’s life.  He shows him courting his high society wife and treating her with great respect while abusing his female slaves.  Forrest showed great admiration for many blacks, including several as his closest advisers during the war and yet could sell and beat these same fellow humans seemingly without remorse.  He is alleged to have allowed a massacre of black Union soldiers at the Battle of Fort Pillow rather than take them prisoner, although this novel makes it seem as if the massacre was beyond Forrest’s control. 

   The author uses a second main character, a free black named Henri who encounters Forrest at the beginning of the war, to tell much of the story.  Henri is a Haitian who came to New Orleans with the intention of igniting a slave revolt.  Henri serves Forrest as a scout and soldier until he is killed at the Battle of Chickamauga.  Through Henri’s eyes we see Forrest go berserk in the heat of battle:  charging into enemy lines with a double edged sword in one hand and a six shooter in the other.  He often had multiple horses (often as many as three or four) shot out from under him during these reckless charges.  We see Forrest shot, stabbed, beaten and starved.  In one memorable scene, Forrest is confronted by another general who Forrest has accused of cowardice.  The second general pulls a gun and shoots Forrest at point blank range.  Henri sees Forrest fall, assumes he’s dead and then watches in amazement as Forrest jumps up and runs after his would-be assassin yelling “Nobody kills Nathan Forrest and deserves to live!”

   The secondary characters are important and abundant in this novel as well.  Nathan’s wife Mary Ann is attracted to her husband’s audacity and brashness but is equally embarrassed by his occupation as a slave trader and by his not so subtle indiscretions with his slave mistresses.  Mary Ann’s mother lives with the couple for some time and acts as an over-bearing and outspoken conscience.  She repeatedly stirs up ill feelings within the extended Forrest family.  Forrest’s many brothers play significant roles, both at home in Memphis and as battlefield advisors.

    I have only two criticisms of this book.  The first criticism is the chronology (or lack thereof) with which it is written.  It’s like the author wrote the story in proper sequence but then cut and pasted the individual chapters in a random order.  A chapter describing intense fighting in Franklin, Tennessee is likely to be followed by a chapter describing Forrest first meeting Mary Anne and her mother while rescuing them from a wagon trapped in a creek bed.  I tried to decipher the reason the author did this, but I couldn’t figure it out.  It becomes very confusing when the battle sequences are presented out of date order.  The second criticism is that the author does not include or even mention Forrest’s post-war life.  The fact that he survived is unbelievable.  How Forrest rallied against carpetbaggers  became the first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan would certainly (in my opinion) have added a lot to this character’s life story.  But, this is not a biography and the author had to stop somewhere, so maybe this isn’t a valid criticism. 

  Devil’s Dream is a superbly written historical novel with a fascinating and enigmatic main character.  History and Civil War buffs should really enjoy this book.



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