A poetic description of a savage time
It took me almost a year to read this book. I kept losing it, leaving it in restaurants and other people’s cars. However, the major reason for the delay was that I didn’t want to finish it. I kept going back to the beginning and becoming enamored again and again of a young Jake Roedel’s surreal journey through the killing fields of “Bloody Kansas” and Missouri during the final years of the Civil War.
I have always been a slow reader, but Woodrell’s narrative brings out the bovine in me; like a cow, I like to re-digest Woodrell’s gift for narrative that is a blend of courtly and biblical speech, imaginative details and dark humor. Consider this description of the terrified flight of the residents of Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863:
All that season they were driven to us. Woeful widows with hung husbands and squalling babes. White-haired grannies with toothless mouths and fierce feeling. Hard-faced farm boys who would now apprentice themselves to the study of revenge.
The infamous burning of this benighted town and the slaughter of some 200 of its citizens, like many of the outrages committed by the First Kansas Irregulars, is an act of revenge. For Jake Roedel and his comrades, the war is deeply personal. It is retribution for the hangings of fathers and the burning of homesteads by Jayhawkers and Union troops. Frequently, these men ride chanting the names of their hated enemies. Jake searches for the man who shot his father, and Riley Crawford searches for a treacherous Union officer named Major Grubbs who has become famous for his atrocities against women and children. “I want to kill him,” he tells Jake, who notes that Riley “had been weaned from hope and only bloodshed raised his morale.”
And again, Jake finds this nightmarish scene on a wooded hillside in Cass County:
High in the branches, seasoned beyond recognition, there swung seven noosed rebels. It was macabre and altogether eerie. The bodies draped down through the leaves like rancid baubles in the locks of a horrible harlot.
In such a hellish setting, life, death and random murders become commonplace and whimsical. Jake is quickly transformed into a galloping demon who sports a necklace of pistols, chanting rebel yells, firing his weapons indiscriminately and striking down both the innocent and guilty. In the course of this tale, he finds himself riding with notorious folks: William Quantrill, Frank James, Coleman Younger — dangerous men who ride with the Kansas Irregulars for a spell, share a bottle and the spoils of a few raids, and then they vanish ... off to keep another rendezvous.
Out of the numerous memorable passages in Woe to Live On, several are unforgettable. One deals with the acquisition of a mail pouch that is packed with letters written by wives, mothers and sweethearts. Jake, being literate, is elected to read the letters aloud. In one instance, a dying Union soldier is forced to listen to a letter from his wife. Initially, Jake’s companions find the letters amusing, but as time passes, they yearn to hear them again, and begin drawing a kind of solace and inspiration from them. Some are nothing more than catalogs of personal grief while others are erotic, touching and poignant. As the First Kansas Regulars move through this blighted and torn landscape, camping in remote coves, Jake is asked to read the letters again and again. (It is interesting to note that Woodrell read collections of letters much like the ones Jake reads. This experience probably influenced Woodrell when he came to create the speech of his characters.)
Time and time again, Jake stumbles on scenes of slaughter that leave him benumbed. The roads are clogged with refugees, many of which are starving, frightened children. “It just let the grease right out of your heart to see them,” he says as he watches these hapless survivors creep through miles of burned and scorched earth, where nothing but lone chimneys stand where farms and villages once prospered.
Jake participates in a prisoner exchange in which captured Union prisoners are offered for rebels that are slated to be hanged. Not only does the barter fail, it also starts a series of brutal executions, beheadings and heedless slaughters that leave Roedel haunted by images and dreams that he will carry for the rest of his life.
At such times, as he shares a meal and another bottle of pop skull, he asks his companions a singular question: Why? This unanswered question troubles Jake throughout Woe to Live On. He is asking why he and his companions are suffered to live. It is as though he is waiting for some divine power to intervene. Why have he and his ilk not been wiped from the earth? And further, why is the human race allowed to continue breeding and murdering?
Yet, out of this carnage and suffering are born two remarkable events. In time, Jake’s closest friend becomes a freed slave named Holt, who rides with the First Kansas Regulars for no discernible reason other than the perversity of chance. Holt is a contradiction to the entire war and he rides and murders with the same deadly zest as Jake. Why is he here? And yes, there were many like him as the old photographs of Quantrill’s Raiders attest. Slowly, a bond develops between these two men that transcends war and allegiance.
The second event is passion. Yes, Jake Roedel, who prides himself on his long rebel locks and his bachelor state, finds romance in the midst of war. Her name is Sue Lee and she is pregnant by one of Jake’s companions, Black John. After devoting considerable time to describing his puzzlement at all things having to do with sex and women, Jake finds himself married to Sue Lee, a black-haired, smart-mouthed hussy with a chipped tooth (and Jake thinks he knows how the tooth got chipped). Some folks think that Jake is the father of Sue Lee’s child, but in fact, the father is Black John, a man that Jake admires. (One of the most moving scenes in this novel is the one in which Jake chews up raw potatoes and feeds them into the mouth of Black John, his dying companion.)
So, in the final pages of Woe to Live On, Jake shaves his rebel locks, abandons his cavalier clothing and loads his new wife and child into a wagon, preparing to be yet another GTT (Gone To Texas) migrant. The reader is left to ponder his fate. Will he survive, or will he end up a victim of the ever-present violence that flourishes on the road? I would like to know that Jake Roedel survived, and I am hoping for a sequel.
Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell. Little, Brown and Company, 2012. 225 pages.