Charleston’s Festivals of Freedom

Welcome back to the History Behind the Story Series!  Since Southern Rain was first published, I have been writing a series of articles which give you the background on the events that happened in my books or the historical choices I made when writing them.  There were ten articles in total for Southern Rain, five for Northern Fire, and the following is the first of the four articles that will dig into the history behind Charleston Tides.  Note that there are usually a few spoilers which pertain to the historical aspects of the books. Okay, here we go!

History Behind the Story #1: Charleston’s Festivals of Freedom

THE HISTORY: When I was researching the history of the South in the days and months following the conclusion of the armed hostilities of the Civil War, it seemed like most information pertained to the military or government.  For the ordinary men and women who were either piecing back together lives or starting totally new lives, I fell back on the research which spoke comprehensively about the insurgent movements that got underway really quickly after everyone laid down their weapons.  I originally depicted a lynching in Charleston, knowing that this was something that happened repeatedly in the city in the years after the war.  I was wary of making it seem as though just because slavery had ended peace and equality had been established as well.

Then my sister went to graduate school for Public History at the College of Charleston.  I got a call from her while we were in the revision process of Charleston Tides, and she said, “You’re never going to believe it.”  What she had found was a little-known but huge moment of empowerment for the newly freed men and women of Charleston.  Most of the following history comes from research gleaned from a book called Denmark Vesey’s Garden.

Basically, from February 18, 1865 when Charleston fell until roughly a year later constituted what is known as the Year of Jubilee in Charleston.  A flag raising ceremony at Fort Sumter (a heavily symbolic place) with formerly enslaved people, abolitionists, and military personnel present kicked off a series of great festivals of freedom in which Charleston’s newly freed community celebrated their freedom again and again.  I don’t want to give the impression that this type of open, public celebration was happening all over the South, because it wasn’t.  However, this was possible in Charleston for several reasons.  First, Charleston’s newly freed contingent made up a majority of its population.  The Union military presence was heavy in Charleston. In addition, Charleston was the archetype city for slavery, so when anything involving slavery was happening, the eyes of the country were upon Charleston.

So what exactly was happening during these festivals?  They were elaborate.  There were parades, public speeches, demonstrations, and commemorations. Famous abolitionists often travelled to Charleston to participate. Ten thousand people gathered for one parade at the Citadel Green, the cite of the South Carolina Military Academy’s former parade ground (again, highly symbolic).  It was a massive procession, more than two miles long, even going down the Battery (where fictional Ravenel House is located). There were dignitaries, military personnel, tradesmen, fire companies, freed schoolchildren who were newly enrolled in schools, and many other formerly enslaved people. 

The scene I depicted of the mock slave auction during a parade in Charleston Tides also happened. This demonstration was a satirical statement highlighting the breathtaking barbarity of something that was, in fact, taking place not long before the festivals. The idea was, “Look at these normal, intelligent, capable humans who were sold like cattle just a few months ago.” As I depicted in the book, this reenactment did induce trauma in some women, for whom the memory of losing their children was still too fresh to make satire bearable.

As noted in Charleston Tides, there was indeed a banner carried that read, “We know no masters but ourselves.”  To us, this seems like a normal expression of human rights, but think about how revolutionary this was given the freshness of slavery’s downfall!  Some of the processions included more funereal elements, such as a mock wake to the institution of slavery, or a hearse carrying a coffin labeled “slavery.”  There was singing of songs that were considered very controversial at the time. There was also a float which carried young Black women representing each of the slave states.  They wore white dresses and, if the depictions are correct, also crowns, these choices being a political statement of purity and status. 

There were lots of ways that the newly freed people of Charleston expressed their freedom and political stances.  One was in the building of the Martyrs of the Race Course Cemetery, which I also discuss in Charleston Tides.  This was an effort by the freed community to give a proper burial to the 257 Union prisoners of war who were buried in unmarked graves after dying at the prison camp which had been held at Charleston’s Washington Race Course.  I am always hesitant to glorify people, armies, or causes in my books because history is simply too fraught and complicated to allow exaltation to be entirely truthful.  But I felt that depicting this outpouring of support wasn’t glorification for several reasons.

While this was an act of tribute, there were many nuanced reasons the freed community singlehandedly raised all of the money, made all of the plans, and did all of the work in order to make this cemetery happen.  One was that during the time that thousands of men were imprisoned in pitiful conditions at the camp, it was Charleston’s Black community which brought them relief in the form of food, bandages, and medicine, and some risked their lives to do so.  I would imagine that bonds had been created in the process.  In addition, creating the cemetery was a political expression, an alignment with a very personal cause, an expression of support for one side of the war, and another statement that slavery was dead.

Ten thousand people turned out for the dedication of the cemetery on May 1.  Then, it was called “Decoration Day,” but it started a tradition that we know today as Memorial Day.

There had been the strictest of hierarchies before the war. But in the year after the war, the social order in Charleston was turned on its head.  The Union military presence, including United States Colored Troops (USCT), was strong.  Newly freed citizens were now the ones standing guard with guns outside of buildings. White Charlestonians were shut out of the dedication ceremony for the cemetery.  They might find themselves shoved off the sidewalk.   They were held to a strict nightly curfew, once a practice applied to slaves.  There were insults made on the streets, and people who had once held ultimate power were forced by the turning tables to take it lying down, so to speak.  Many were baffled, having been thoroughly inculcated in the belief that the enslaved community had been content and even fond of their masters.  You read genuine confusion in some of the writings from the time, something which shows how thoroughly cultural conditioning can instill ideas that aren’t necessarily grounded in reality.

Ultimately, after several discussions with people in-the-know, I decided to take out the lynching scene I had depicted because in this specific place, in this specific year, it seemed unlikely.[1]  Charleston would, not too much later, become the scene of various tragedies, including lynching.  But for this one year, I do believe that there was a significant power shift, and I think those are as important to discuss as oppression when recounting race history.

The following link is the article which ran in the New-York Daily Tribune on April 4, 1865, from which I believe much of the research in Denmark Vesey’s Garden was pulled.

“A Jubilee of Freedom”: Freed Slaves March in Charleston, South Carolina, March, 1865 (gmu.edu)

PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: When Charleston fell, various Union troops poured into the city over the course of the next couple of weeks, many of them USCT.  One Black sergeant, John H.W.N. Collins of the 54th Massachusetts, reported, “I saw an old colored woman with a crutch—for she could not walk without one, having served all her life in bondage—who, on seeing us, got so happy that she threw down her crutch, and shouted that the year of Jubilee had come.”  This is a very moving description, depicting sheer joy.  I don’t know if this woman coined “the Year of Jubilee,” a Biblical expression, to apply to this situation or if that was how the enslaved community had referred for many years to the year that would be their liberation.  I love the snapshot into this woman’s life.  She strikes me as someone who had been actively anticipating liberation.  I wonder if she might have been an activist or an encourager within her community.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT: As I read about the Year of Jubilee, I received the impression that the newly freed men and women of Charleston were there to claim their equality, their freedom, even their political enfranchisement.  You can sense the tides of change in the air, the feeling that anything was possible.  There was no Jim Crow yet, the KKK was in its infancy, and the military and government seemed to be on the side of the freedmen.  One article said that “the promise for a bright future was at its zenith in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.”[2] This makes me wonder…  If a few things had been tweaked, if a few politicians had followed through and made better decisions…could America have fast-forwarded a hundred years in terms of equality?  Maybe this is outlandish, but it doesn’t really seem so when you look closely at the days and months right after the war.  What do you think? Do you think things are inevitable in history, or is every decision important?

ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Sorry that it’s a drawing rather than a photograph! I believe this ran in a newspaper which recounted the events of one of the parades some time after the fact.  This depicts the USCT marching as they sing “John Brown’s Body,” a highly controversial song at the time!  Notice the schoolchildren in the foreground, as well as the burned out shells of Charleston’s buildings in the background.

Photo Credit: Charleston County Public Library, ccpl.org.

Stop by next time for a peek into the fame of Civil War officers!

SOURCES:

Butler, Nic, “The History of Emancipation Day in Charleston,” Charleston County Public Library Website, The History of Emancipation Day in Charleston | Charleston County Public Library (ccpl.org), June 19, 2020.

Kytle, Ethan J. and Blain Roberts, Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, The New Press, (New York: April 3, 2018).

Kytle, Ethan J. and Blain Roberts, “When Freedom Came to Charleston,” The New York Times Opinionator Blog, When Freedom Came to Charleston – The New York Times (nytimes.com), February 19, 2015.


[1] Of course, I’m not saying that by any means it was impossible.  I could not find specific instances, but the failure to find specific instances doesn’t mean that it absolutely never happened, as we have discussed in previous posts.

[2] “The History of Emancipation Day in Charleston.”

Welcome!

Welcome! Put on the kettle while you get acquainted with Tea & Rebellion…

You’ll find tidbits about my books, reviews, history, travel musings, and tea.  Sit back and enjoy a bit of rebellion while you sip.

-Tara

TARA COWAN has been writing novels since she was seventeen. She is the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain and Northern Fire. A huge lover of all things history, she loves to travel, watch British dramas, read good fiction, and spend time with her family. An attorney, Tara lives in Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel.

TARA holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Political Science, with minors in English and History, from Tennessee Tech University and a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of Tennessee College of Law.

TO CONNECT with Tara, follow her on Instagram @teaandrebellion_, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.

Charleston Tides Releases Today!

Charleston Tides releases today! I am so excited to share the culmination of this series with my readers, who have been the best readers a writer could ask for! Here’s to three books, the end of a series, and new beginnings!

Read the synopsis and then click the link below to download your Kindle or order your paperback! Also, the book is free on KU!

Charleston, Modern Day:

Adeline Miller-Ravenel came to Charleston to restore a historic Battery Street mansion. She never expected her ties in the city to run so deep or her decisions to be so difficult. With her reason for staying drawing to a close, she is torn between making the sensible choice and following the promptings of her heart.

Charleston, 1865:

The war is over, and Charleston lies in ruins. In a world quickly changing, Shannon Haley must piece together the fragments of her marriage and former life. Her journey will plunge her deep into the heart of Reconstruction and into the highest stakes for the fate of a nation and her own future.

Charleston Tides is the final book in the Torn Asunder Series. It is the poignant culmination of great emotions, fears, trials, and triumphs for the characters of the series, both modern and historical.

Charleston Tides (Torn Asunder Series Book 3) – Kindle edition by Cowan, Tara. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Charleston Tides Release Date

The release date for Charleston Tides has been set! February 12, you will be able to order the book in paperback or Kindle formats from Amazon. Preorder is available now for the Kindle format. Note: if you prefer to order online from Barnes & Noble or Books-A-Million, you will most likely be able to within a month of the release when the book goes to expanded distribution.

Click the link below to preorder your Kindle and have it delivered to your device on February 12!

Charleston Tides (Torn Asunder Series Book 3) – Kindle edition by Cowan, Tara. Literature & Fiction Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

Cover Reveal – Charleston Tides

I am so excited to share the cover of Charleston Tides with you. It is my favorite yet! I will be getting info to you on the release date soon. You won’t have long to wait now! Thank you so much for your patience and excitement throughout the delays. Without further ado, I give you the cover!

History Behind the Story Series – Charleston Tides

Hello, friends! It’s that time again: the announcement of the articles I will write covering the history behind the story for my next book. This is always a fun announcement because it gives you, the reader, a little sneak peak into the historical framework of the book before the book is released.

This time will be a bit different. There will be three articles, which is less than usual, but the themes were broader in this book. Plus, there will be a special guest post from my sister on an ancillary theme in the book. So without further ado, I give you the History Behind the Story Topics for Charleston Tides!

  1. Festivals of Freedom
  2. Fame of Civil War Officers
  3. Violence Against Freedmen and the Rise of Insurgent Movements
  4. Special Guest Post: Elite Free Blacks in Charleston

Q&A: Charleston Tides

Hello again, friends!  The third book of the Torn Asunder Series will be available soon! To celebrate, here is a Q&A about Charleston Tides.  Some questions are about the book, some are about writing in general, and some are about me! (Just a word of caution, if you haven’t yet read Southern Rain and Northern Fire, there might be a few spoilers for those two books. However, there shouldn’t be any spoilers for Charleston Tides, and I encourage you to read the Q&A before you read the third and final book of the series.) Here we go!

Q: Which was your favorite storyline: modern or historical?

A:  I think more about the historical, but if I had to choose, it would be the modern.  I love the coastal feeling of it, and there can be something sort of magical about a contemporary tale.  The chemistry between Adrian and Adeline was always compelling for me.

Q: Do you think the modern and historical storylines overlap?

A:  I do!  There is something almost indefinable that binds the two stories together.  I have had several people tell me that they feel a close link between Shannon and Adeline.  There are several ways their stories intertwine: relationships that began quickly, the complications of parenthood or its void, fear of the uncertainties of love… There are several more, but for me, the strongest thing was that there was always something similar in the mood and tone of the two stories.  And of course, there is the house, which is the same setting for both stories for a large portion of the series; Ravenel-Thompson House is almost a character in itself!

Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the series thus far?

A:  I really liked the brief vacation to Sullivan’s Island that Adeline, Adrian, and Jude take in Northern Fire.  I also enjoy the moment that Shannon finds out it is John Thomas on the ship in Northern Fire!

Q: Are any of your characters based on people in real life?

A:  Nope!  I’ve always heard all of the fun stories about Jane Austen including her quirky neighbors and friends in her books, and I think: she could never get away with this in the South!  Part of the joy of writing to me is the creation level of it.  I don’t think it would be very fun to pattern characters after people I know because it would turn into mimicry, which takes the creative process out of it.[1]

Q: What kind of music would your main characters listen to?

A:  I think Adrian listens to Frank Sinatra and Michael Bublé in the series.  Adeline strikes me as a Colbie Callait/Jason Mraz girl, maybe with a little Fleetwood Mac thrown in?  For John Thomas and Shannon… I don’t know: Schubert? Chopin? Tchaikovsky? 😉

Q: What was the most difficult to write about Shannon?

A:  She has a bit of a crazy side. We all do, though, so that’s okay! Her character very much begged me to let her spiral, and I had to do several rewrites just to calm her down. She also has this deceptive air of retiring fragility, coupled with a very powerful mind, and you’re like: Who are you? I finally realized that she was just that: a very feminine, very intelligent woman, who had been taught (and rather liked) to appear weak, while also being strong-willed. That made her very elusive as a character. A lot of readers actually don’t like Shannon, and some sort of state it as a criticism. The thing is, you aren’t necessarily supposed to like Shannon at first. She’s very self-centered and very flawed. The series is partially her journey of setting aside the things of the past, of childhood, and emerging into adulthood and peace. But that doesn’t mean you’ll always like her. And that’s hard for me, too. I like characters who always make responsible decisions!

Q: We left Shannon on the ship, asking John Thomas to take her back.  Should we expect to see him do so with open arms?

A: I struggled with determining how he would react to her leaving.  My sister (plot doctor extraordinaire) said, “The one thing I do not want you to do is have him beg her to come back.” I agreed.  It was a tricky situation all around.  I don’t want to give too much away, but basically, there is nothing simple about their reunion!

Q: What would you say this series is “about?”

A:  Probably most prominently, women—their trials, internal and external, and how they overcome them. 

Specifically, too, women in the Civil War.  There is a tendency in war novels and history to make it appear as if little of the burden fell upon women, as if they had minimal roles in the play at all.  No one can deny the huge burden that did fall upon men—something to the tune of 750,000 deaths… But at least 50,000 civilians died violent deaths during the war, many of them women.  And that’s setting aside deaths that women had always faced from childbearing, etc.  They were actively engaged, actively facing the consequences of political decisions, and living in a country at war. Women faced hardship from every possible front during the war.

Shannon loses three people dear to her.  I specifically wanted them all to be women.  Two died from illnesses related to womanhood and one, Phoebe, from violence.  I wanted to portray that this was a woman’s war, too, and also that women of this time had been at war, so to speak, before the battles ever began.

Q: I have noticed that your blog is non-political, but there is a lot of discussion of political parties in the historical part of the series, particularly Charleston Tides.  Should we expect any correlation to modern parties?

A:  The short answer is no. 

The long answer: it would be really tough to write about the Civil War without exploring the political parties of that day. If you watch the year of 1860, the split was very much a political one, and if you read primary sources, people considered loyalties during the war to be wrapped up in party loyalties.  In the memoirs of John O. Casler, who lived in divided Northern Virginia, he relates that he didn’t know if he could trust a neighbor when he was home on leave. His terminology was: “I didn’t know what his politics were,” meaning that he didn’t know which country or government his neighbor supported during the war.

Do I think there is any correlation to the political parties of today?  Not really.  For the first time during the Civil War we did have our two-party system finally boil down essentially to “Democrats” and “Republicans.”  I have heard some historians say that the Democratic party started with Jefferson, continued with Jackson, the Democrats of the Civil War era, and right up to today, and that the Republican party started with Lincoln and continued until today.  On the other hand, I have heard historians say that the Democratic and Republican parties switched platforms in the early twentieth century. 

I don’t totally buy into either theory.  Trying to match parties and people up across roughly 250 years just doesn’t work.  We tried it in one of my political science classes.  The conventional wisdom through scholarship which traces party history was that Republicans of today should align with Alexander Hamilton and Democrats of today should align with Thomas Jefferson.  Yet, when we read their ideologies aloud, the reaction was overwhelmingly just the opposite. 

Political platforms are, to a large extent, based on current issues and events.  I think that people make parties what they need them to be in their own time, based on the world as they find it in their era. You can trace certain roots of party heirship and ideology to the past but not in any way that deeply affects platforms of today, or that is particularly traceable in a two-dimensional, two-party way.

So when I’m talking about “Democrats” or “Republicans,” in the series, I am talking about the parties just as they were in the 1860s, nothing more. I do not find anachronistic historical fiction that projects modern politics over historical events to be particularly compelling.

Q: Was there anything that really surprised you over the course of your research about the Civil War?

A:  I originally shied away from the Civil War because it was such a terrible conflict.  The more I know about it, the more terrible I find it to be!  The sheer number of deaths, the battles, the diseases, the violence, the hardships, the starvation, the fear…  I think much of this is true for most people involved, North and South, enslaved and free.  It’s hard for us to imagine that a war of this magnitude happened during the Victorian Era.  I keep thinking there will be a way to make sense of it all, but it just gets more horrific the more I read about it. 

On a more optimistic note… There is some really fascinating history about the newly freed men and women of Charleston in the year after the Civil War.  My sister, who is in grad school for Public History at the College of Charleston, helped me with this research.  1865-1866 was a huge moment of empowerment for formerly enslaved communities in Charleston.  This was something I was not expecting.  If I had been writing without the research, I would have portrayed it very differently.  I think you’re going to enjoy reading about this history in Charleston Tides!

Q: Has there been any reader feedback which surprised you?

A:   One thing that has been kind of funny is a generation split about Adeline’s situation.  My younger readers think she’s totally on the right track: she needs to be cautious, take her time, not trust too easily…  But my older readers get so frustrated with her: Why can’t she see Adrian’s a good boy?  Why can’t she just make the leap already?  I love these sorts of conversations!  They’re things you would never think about as you’re writing.

Q: Does being lawyer impact you as a writer, or vice-versa?

A:  Well, just from a thousand-foot level, being a lawyer takes up most of my time.  My clients come first, so writing has to happen once everything is finished at work.

But as far as the two jobs sort of feeding each other…  At first, being a writer made legal writing a little tough.  In creative writing, you get to be flowy and wordy, whereas in legal writing you have to be concise and to-the-point with short sentences and paragraphs.  But when you think about line edits and trying to convey clarity to your readers, my legal training is something that is helpful to fall back on.

My writing is also the thing I do that keeps my life balanced.  The legal profession is notoriously stressful from day one in law school until retirement.  But with writing, I have this sort of creative or imaginative outlet that gives me a release and keeps everything in perspective.

Q:  Is there anyone who has been especially helpful to you in the course of publishing the Torn Asunder Series?

A:  My hometown and my friends and family have been a huge encouragement.  I don’t know if it’s just because they’re incredibly kind people or if the themes really resonated because we’re from the same place, but they have been so loving and have said all of the things that any writer really needs to hear.  So, to the people closest to me… Thank you, from the bottom of my heart!

Q: Where do you plan to take us next—a new series, a stand-alone, modern, historical?

A:   I am definitely taking you somewhere—that’s about all I can tell you!  I have several completed manuscripts, and it’s a matter of choosing which one to run with next.  I am going to take a few months just to regroup, start the editing process, and make sure that I get you the best finished product I can!  I will post updates periodically on my blog, so stay tuned!

And thank you, Dear Readers, for taking this journey with these characters!  It has been a fun ride, and I can’t wait for the next one!


[1] I do bend my rule just slightly and sometimes draw inspiration from real life for characters who are children because children are really easy to get wrong in writing.

Release Day Update!

Hi friends! I thought I would drop by to let you know that we are still on target to release Book 3 of the Torn Asunder Series very soon. Life has gotten a little busy, and, as we all know, 2020 has been nothing if not unexpected, challenging, and off-schedule!

However, I can tell you that Charleston Tides will be in your hands soon. It will just be a winter publication instead of a late autumn publication as originally planned. Thank you so much for your patience and excitement for the book. I’m so grateful for the readers I have and the encouragement you give! I can’t wait to share the culmination of this series with you!

Best,
Tara

Charleston Tides – Synopsis Revealed!

Hi friends and readers! I am thrilled to announce that Charleston Tides, Book 3 of the Torn Asunder Series, is in its final edit. That means it will be in your hands very soon! It also means that it is time to share the synopsis with you! So without further ado, I give you the Charleston Tides blurb:

Charleston, Modern Day:

Adeline Miller-Ravenel came to Charleston to restore a historic Battery Street mansion. She never expected her ties in the city to run so deep or her decisions to be so difficult. With her reason for staying drawing to a close, she is torn between making the sensible choice and following the promptings of her heart.

Charleston, 1865:

The war is over, and Charleston lies in ruins. In a world quickly changing, Shannon Haley must piece together the fragments of her marriage and former life. Her journey will plunge her deep into the heart of Reconstruction and into the highest stakes for the fate of a nation and her own future.

Charleston Tides is the final book in the Torn Asunder Series. It is the poignant culmination of great emotions, fears, trials, and triumphs for the characters of the series, both modern and historical.

I’m so excited to share this final installment of Shannon and Adeline’s journeys with you! Stay tuned for a cover reveal soon. (Hint: it’s my favorite cover yet!)

The American War Novel

Today is Veterans Day in America.  I thought that, in special recognition of this day, I would talk about a class I took in college that meant a great deal to me and greatly influences my writing: The American War Novel.  We got to discuss topics like the changing attitudes regarding PTSD throughout the centuries, the conceptualization of women in war literature, realism versus romanticism, and the nitty gritty effects of war on the people who fight them.

Our professor was just out of grad school “up north” as we say in the South, and he brought to Tennessee Tech a passion for war and trauma literature (shout out to Dr. Williams!).  It was a small class in which we sat in a circle and discussed the literature assigned.

Going chronologically through history, we started with some essays and excerpts from the nineteenth century.  There was a lot of romantic and flowery language during this era, the language of glory in death, etc.  It is beautiful language but way off base in accuracy, according to most veterans, in that it doesn’t touch on the realities of war. I always thought that this rhetoric, which was what much of America took into the Civil War, must have led to a huge wake-up call in the wake of what became America’s most violent conflict to date.  It may even have prolonged the conflict. You see in primary documents people clinging to this rhetoric of glory and “knights on a charger” even amidst the growing casualty counts deep into the war.

After that, we read The Red Badge of Courage.  This book, written about the Civil War by Stephen Crane in 1895 (thirty years after the conflict ended), is, according to Matthew Arnold, “a touchstone for modern war fiction.”  In other words, it is the mother of all war novels.  While “the war” is kind of universal in The Red Badge, most believe that The Battle of Chancellorsville is the setting.  Crane’s work is remarkable in that it obliterates the clichés of prior war fiction, giving us a depiction of a young boy who is simply a human, afraid that he will run at his first battle.  Every sentence is literary and could be carefully unpacked.  Romantic traditions are rejected in favor of reality and genuine courage.  I remember so vividly Henry Fleming’s inner struggle.  Even though we as a class could never take away a distinct “meaning” from the book (not a bad thing), it resonates.  And I have to think that was due largely in part to the fact that Crane interviewed a lot of Civil War veterans.

We moved on to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.  This is about an American lieutenant serving in World War I in Italy who falls in love with his nurse, Catherine, after he is injured.  It is part gruesome and realistic war novel and part romance (although not in a happy-go-lucky way).  I liked this one for its narrative ease, for the way Hemingway strips his language down to the bare bones, and for the fact that a woman featured prominently in it.  However, the really depressing ending stays with you long after you read it.  It does contain one of my favorite quotes, however: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”  Just don’t read the line after that—hope never lasts long with Hemingway!

Next, we read Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, which was WWII-related and linked to the firebombing of Dresden.  It was also part sci-fi, part meta, part really off-the-wall novel!  This was not my cup of tea at all, but I am glad we read it to get exposure to all of the different varieties of war novels, and Vonnegut is certainly one of the legends of the war novel genre.  My reaction paper for this one was about the sexism used towards every female in the novel and my theory that it was done to highlight the degradations towards women that sexism causes (in other words, in an attempt to help, not to hurt).  The sexism was so blatant that my professor commented on my paper, “I really hope you’re right!”

After that, we moved on to Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko.  This was my favorite war novel and stands as one of my favorite novels of all time.  It is about a Native American soldier who fought in WWII in the Pacific Theater and was forced to take place in the Bataan Death March.  After this, he returns to his tribe with what was then called “battle fatigue,” and would now be known as PTSD.  We follow his journey to healing, which was aided by the spiritualism of his heritage.  It was beautiful.  I remember feedback from a fellow student who was commenting on how fascinating the war’s effects were to explore through the Native American experience.  She said, “When I try to think, What is the opposite of PTSD, I think, It is balance.”  Balance is such an important concept in Native American culture, so in this and in many other ways, you watch an entire culture’s answers to his illness come to the forefront.  I presented on this book in my class, and the subject I chose was the history of the Bataan Death March and the physical toll it took on the soldiers.  This book was a wonderful contribution to American literature, and, for me, a constant reminder that, of all racial, ethnic, and cultural American groups, per capita, Native Americans served in the largest number in WWII.

Next, we read Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.  O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran who went on to write war novels.  I think he is most famous for his book, The Things They Carried.  O’Brien has a lot to tell us about the nature of war as it is actually fought and lived.  He was almost like a second professor for our class; we read so many of his quotes that they could frame almost every discussion we had.  For instance, we talked about the theme of masculinity in war, or the concept in literature that, if war does nothing else, it makes you a man. The thing I loved about O’Brien was that he seeks to present you with the truth; he doesn’t deny any reality about war.  His answer to the “war makes men out of boys conversation?”  He agrees, but he doesn’t stop there.  He says, “War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”  Try grappling with that quote!  He talks about the beauty of war and juxtaposes it with its grotesque nature.  In addition to the Hemingway quote above, another of my favorites is by O’Brien: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love.”  That quote has influenced me so much as I grapple with war themes in my own novels.  It gives a first-person perspective to those of us who have not fought in wars but want to honor the experiences of those who have in our own writing.  Cacciato is about a soldier in Vietnam who sets off on a journey to find another soldier who has gone AWOL.  It was another book that was very heavy on the literary elements.  It blends reality and fantasy.  It wasn’t my favorite, but Tim O’Brien is certainly worth discovering.

Last, we read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain.  This one featured an Iraq war veteran who is sent on a victory tour after coming home.  It explores the reactions Americans had to troops during the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and the ways in which they might not have been helpful.  For instance, really vivid in my remembrance is the scene in which Billy and his group are expected to go down on a football field at halftime while Destiny’s Child performing.  It was revealing about the fact that we need to go much, much deeper in addressing the needs of returning veterans.  However, it was, in my opinion, a bit too political.  Our class was all over the political spectrum, and everyone seemed to agree on that.  Like I said, though, there were lessons to be gleaned from it.

We were slated to read In Country, by Bobbie Ann Mason but had to cut it because we ran out of time.  I was disappointed by that because it details the home front experiences of a little girl during Vietnam.  Most war novels focus primarily on men, and I would like to read more featuring women (one of the reasons I focused so heavily on women’s experiences in Northern Fire).  We did discuss women in relation to every book, era, and theme, however, so I felt like I left with a pretty good grasp of war novel trends throughout time with regards to women.  If you want to see a movie that plays with a lot of those themes (and don’t laugh…), I actually have to tell you that Mulan (animated) is excellent.  You can tell that the writers were students of the war novel genre.  Every song could be used as one of the war novel themes we discussed in relation to women.  For example, “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” was a recurring theme in early war literature, etc.

I really like the genre of the war novel.  It is a field that builds on every previous generation’s theme, almost as if all of the authors from Stephen Crane onward are having a conversation.  We discussed many difficult themes, and I think the class helped me to get just a small glimpse inside of the experience of those on the frontlines of wars and conflicts.  In the words of O’Brien, “That’s what fiction is for.  It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

To all veterans, thank you is not enough.  “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including the silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” – Tim O’Brien