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A Civil War Too Civil

By Joanne Harris,
who is the author of "Gentlemen & Players"
Friday, December 29, 2006

THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE

By S.C. Gylanders

Random House. 436 pp. $25.95

It is spring of 1862, just days before the battle of Shiloh. Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman, out for his nightly stroll, comes across a mysterious youth, unarmed and alone but wearing an oversize Union infantryman's uniform, hiding out in the woods near his camp. Sherman befriends this youth, who identifies himself as Jesse Davis and steadfastly, against Sherman's vehement opposition, announces his intention to serve the general, personally, any way he can. It soon becomes clear that Jesse is not what he seems. Persistent, fearless and strangely wise, though innocent of the ways of the world, the youth leaves his mark on everyone he meets.

Such is the premise of "The Better Angels of Our Nature," an ambitious novel by S.C. Gylanders, whose passion for the Civil War era is apparent from the first page. The intricate details of military life flow as thick and fast as the blood that cakes the battleground, and her descriptions of 19th-century field surgery sound authentic and harrowing.

But Gylanders is no Stephen Crane. The very title of the novel -- taken from Lincoln's 1861 inaugural address -- suggests that the world depicted here is one of angels and demons. The author's acknowledgments, which refer to her "humble portrait of this great American patriot [Sherman] and the story of his war," should warn us not to expect ethical challenges or significant moral ambivalence. Despite the author's loving (and somewhat long-winded) attention to weaponry and medical matters, she glosses over such discomforting subjects as slavery, desertion, corruption, conscription and disease. And the dialogue and interaction between these rough soldiers is strangely -- and implausibly -- sanitized.

But the novel's essential weakness lies in the characters, who tend to stand out like monuments, especially the gruff, cigar-chewing Sherman and the swashbuckling brigade commander Thomas Ransom. They are beyond criticism, remaining largely unchallenged and unknown, alienated from the reader by their own legendary status. It is as if the author's personal enthusiasm for these historical figures has blinded her to the emotional needs of the reader.

There is one exception: Seth Cartwright, the flawed, whiskey-chugging surgeon who issues diatribes against the stupidity of would-be heroes and the pointlessness of war. In his pessimism, he is convincing and likable. But Davis, the "better angel" of the title, who by rights should engage us to the hilt, remains infuriatingly nebulous despite a number of plot twists that promise much but deliver little. For all the grimness and brutality around him, Jesse's exploits are mostly in the Tom Sawyer/Pollyanna league: riding and taming an "untamable" horse, crossing a war zone to pick peaches for the hospital's scurvy-ridden patients, delivering pert and cutesy home truths to crusty old warriors.

Such sentimentality sits uneasily against the backdrop of the story, as it shifts from realism into a world of appalling cliche: Urchins are invariably freckle-faced and saucy; gruff old codgers are won over with goodness; Rebel corpses are disposed of with respect; love conquers all; and good men always do their duty. The style reflects this with such overburdened phrases as "Jesse's laughter made the large honey-coloured freckles dance across his puckish nose" or "youthful laughter, fresh and clear as a newly struck bell."

The result is a novel ill at ease with its own material, moving awkwardly from gritty war to outright whimsy at the turn of a page. And though, thankfully, the author does not go so far as to attribute an overtly supernatural cause to Jesse's presence at Sherman's side, there is quite enough in the text to hint at such an explanation. Less cynical readers may find this an uplifting and challenging new version of a well-known and oft-repeated story. I found it intriguing at times but ultimately hollow.

Book World will not appear this Sunday. The section will return Jan. 7.

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