Three dark gems
Almost a decade ago, I wrote an unabashed rave review of Howard Bahr’s The Black Flower (1997), a darkly beautiful novel based on one of the Civil War’s most tragic events, the Battle of Franklin.
Several years later, after acquiring an impressive number of literary awards, Bahr went on to complete a sequel, The Year of Jubilo (2000). Now, The Judas Field completes Bahr’s trilogy. It is an astonishing achievement.
There are few writers who can rival Bahr when it comes to evoking mood and atmosphere. Each of his novels contain passages that are so vividly descriptive, they linger in the mind’s eye like the details of an Eakins or Manet painting. For example, a haunting image of fireflies ascending above the Confederate dead in a moonlit orchard (The Black Flower); the ruins of the courthouse in Cumberland, Mississippi with the great bell half-buried in the wreckage (The Year of Jubilo); and the sepia-toned interior of an 1880 train depot in Spring Hill, Tenn., where Alison Sansing waits for a train that will take her to Franklin — where she hopes to claim the remains of her father and brother from a battlefield ditch (The Judas Field).
The protagonist of The Judas Field, Cass Wakefield, is haunted by the harrowing events attending the Battle of Franklin. Back in his hometown of Cumberland, Miss., he finds his daily existence a disturbing blend of the prosaic present and the nightmarish past. (At times, they are interchangeable.) Twenty years ago, Cass had marched away to the war with a hometown friend, Roger Lewellyn, a musician (and a most unpromising soldier) who frequently tells his fellow recruits, “All I ever wanted to do was play the piano.” At the request of Roger’s family, Cass (who is much older than his fellow soldiers), becomes Roger’s guardian. In time, Cass becomes the reluctant guardian and adopted father of a third companion, a 12-year-old child named Lucian found on the battlefield.
Although this unique trio survives the war, the experience leaves them with severe psychic scars. Cass has fanciful conversations with the dead and sometimes hesitates to open doors, fearing he will re-enter the past – perhaps becoming a part of a column of rebels marching towards Franklin again. Lucian becomes addicted to “black draught” (laudanum) and suffers from migraines and Roger lives a quiet, subdued existence, haunted by a night at Shiloh when he had repeatedly bayoneted a field of dead soldiers. However, it is at this point, 20 years after Franklin, that Alison Sansing, the daughter of Cass’ commanding officer, sends for him.
Alison’s request is simple and direct. She is dying and feels a need to complete an obligation. She asks Cass to return with her to Franklin to find the remains of her father and brother. She has been told that they are in a mass grave, buried where they fell when they participated in the battle’s final, senseless charge. Alison wants to bring them home. She wants the family together again. Cass reluctantly agrees. When he returns, Lucian and Roger go with him.
It is a ghost-haunted return. When the three men step from the train, the past engulfs them. As they move through the silent pastures and fields, the dead arise. Jack Bishop and Bushrod Carter, the doomed heroes of The Black Flower, hasten to their destiny once more. Cass Wakefield has a vivid recollection of where Alison’s father and son are buried since he made their grave markers.
Ironically, the dead are not where Cass, Roger and Lucian left them. Indeed, those readers who may have recently read Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South can verify the fact that a remarkable (and very real) woman named Carrie McGavock undertook the awesome task of removing the remains of the Confederate dead and interring them on her own property near Franklin. (Carrie spent the remainder of her life as a kind of perpetual caretaker for this cemetery.) So, Alison Sansing and her three champions must deal with a change of plans. This change has tragic consequences.
The final resting place of Alison’s family is of little consequence to The Judas Field. Bahr’s third novel is about a final reckoning, redemption and need to make our peace with the past. Bahr’s trilogy has come full circle.