”The shack creaked softly with the wind while the tide hissed all along the dark and rocky shore. The moon glowed full from amidst the rain clouds, casting a hard light that slid like grease atop the water. The old man watched ivory curlers far to sea rise and subside noiselessly. Within the bounds of his little cove stood sea stacks weirdly canted from the wind and the waves. Tide-gnawed remnants of antediluvian islands and eroded coastal headlands, the tall stones stood monolithic and forbidding, hoarding the shadows and softly shining purple, ghostblue in the moon-and ocean-colored gloom. Grass and wind-twisted scrub pine stood from the stacks, and on the smaller, flatter, seaward stones lay seals like earthen daubs of paint upon the the night’s darker canvas. From that wet dark across the bay came the occasional slap of a flipper upon the water that echoed into the sound bowl of the cove, and the dog, as it always did, raised its scarred and shapeless ears.”
Sea Stacks off the Washington coast
Abel Truman is living in shack on the coast of Washington State with the Olympic Mountains looming up on one side and the Pacific Ocean forming a vast expanse on the other side. He was a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. He fought in most of the major battles including Gettysburg without receiving a single scratch. Everything changed for him at the Battle of the Wilderness. It turned out to be the end of the war for him and even though the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee may not have known it quite yet (or maybe he did he was an astute man) it was battle that ushered in the beginning of the end of the Confederacy as well.
Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee
The Battle of the Wilderness was the debut of Ulysses S. Grant taking command of the Army of the Potomac. Now there are people that say that this battle was a draw, but with the lopsided casualty count there are those that insist it was a Confederate victory. Grant lost more than 17,000 men and Lee lost 11,000 men. As a percentage of the size of each army though Lee lost the higher percentage. Grant’s plan was to grind Lee’s army into powder. Every able bodied man in the South was either in uniform, wounded or dead. Grant knew he had at least 2.5 million men more that could be pressed into service if they proved to be necessary.
Grant could afford to be a butcher.
Unlike every Union commander in the past Grant did not retreat back across the closest river to lick his wounds after the battle. He moved his army to Lee’s right to try and seize the crossroads of Spotsylvania putting himself closer to the Confederate capital of Richmond than his opponent. The idea was to force Lee to retreat or fight.
Lee fought producing another bloodbath similar to the numbers lost by both sides during the Battle of the Wilderness. We are at the point of the war where Lee loses every time he wins.
So what was it like Abel being there at this turning point in history?
Anything can inspire memories of the war. A pile of stacked driftwood that he has to negotiate around snaps his mind from 1899 back in the thick of it in 1864.
”Climbing over and around them got the old man to thinking of battles despite himself. How they’d rush screaming and hollering through some field, some forest or farmer’s woodlot, where musket smoke hung from the branches in pale tatters like strange moss. How they’d go down on their knees in fallen leaves or dew-slick grass, firing blindly and fast. No skill to it. No time for aiming. Driving powder and shot down the barrel and pulling free the rammer and fitting the firing cap and raising the pieces to their cramped, bruising shoulders. Kneeling there, sobbing and loading and screaming and firing and loading again, hearing the shouts and cries and sobs of those everywhere around. The great, rolling, throaty percussion of cannon and the sharp crackle of rifle fire swelling up and up like an orchestra in the throes of some grand flourish. And that sound rolling together into a single noise a solitary booming wail of a sound that had no correlation to any other sound the world makes or that a man makes upon it.”
Now Abel Truman missed the follow up battle because he was lying in the woods along with a patchwork of dead men with blue and gray uniforms. He has two bullets in his leg and a shattered arm. His war is over, but then is something like this ever over? Every time he tries to use that arm for the rest of his life he can’t help but remember the circumstances and the pain. Every time he takes his clothes off the schematic of his injuries is etched into the scar tissue of his skin. The mental scars can’t be seen, but they are roadblocks that he continually has to negotiate again and again to live.
Hypatia, an escaped slave, nurses him back to health. Those that have the least always seem to have the most to give. You will have more than one moment in this book where you get teary eyed over the kindness of strangers to Abel. He must have that face, that right face that convinces everyone he is worthy of their aid and assistance.
Driftwood shack similar to the one Abel and Dog lived in.
Now back in 1899 Abel and his faithful companion Dog are going on a quest over the Olympic Mountains. It is hardly a good idea with the chances for success somewhere between thin and none. He doesn’t see himself as the owner of the Dog, but he does consider this stray canine a friend. When Abel is beaten and Dog is taken from him to be used for fighting the story in a sense really begins because this is the point where the reader has to decide what kind of person they are as well. You’re old. You can barely use your left arm. You are beaten to within an inch of your life.
What do you do?
Well after some Indians patch him up (the kindness of strangers is still working for him) Abel goes after his friend.
”I seen things I can’t forget. They won’t turn me loose, and if they did, I can’t imagine what I’d do with myself. Who I’d be. No. I can’t really tell any of it because they ain’t invented the words a man could use to do it justice.”
We are the composite of our triumphs and our disasters. Abel is the walking wounded, but he is still walking.
”The cool, stinging wind of a single bullet passed close to his cheek like the first quick kiss of a shy girl.”
Life is measured in centimeters.
Lance Weller with the 750 books that he signed for the First Edition Club Membership with Lemuria Books in Jackson, Mississippi.
I know the term lyrical is used a lot to describe literary writers and certainly lyrical applies to Lance Weller. In the early part of the book especially I thought to myself more than once I’m never going to finish this book because I was reading and reading again these beautiful composed sentences and paragraphs. I made notes and would read forward awhile only to return to read back through all the passages I’d marked. He left me with images.
”He passed trees swollen with bullets, broken by cannon fire, and singed black by flame. He saw fine-bred horses dead amidst the fallen leaves and dead soldiers lying beside them, weaponless and with their back shredded.” I’m so THERE I can smell it.
There is pain and redemption in this novel. You will feel the fear. It will jangle your nerves and have you ducking from bullets fired almost 150 years ago. The wicked are not punished as swiftly or as justly as we want. The righteous are not always protected or saved as often as we wish. As long as there are Abel Truman’s walking the earth we will always know that someone is coming for us. Highly recommended!!
I would also like to recommend The Black Flower by Howard Bahr both books are an excellent depiction of the Civil War on a personal level. Link to Black Flower review
I would also like to thank Diana Barnes for taking the time to write me and ask me to read this book called Wilderness. Her excitement was infectious...the absolute best kind of infection.