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Truth And Fiction: Historical Novels

June 2024
2min read

After the War

by Richard Marius, Knopf, 622 pages.

It’s just the same old familiar story: Paul Alexander, a Greek soldier serving with the Belgian army in the opening weeks of World War I, is grievously wounded but survives to make his way to Bourbonville, Tennessee, where he becomes head of the Dixie Railroad’s car-building shops. Marius’s big, engrossing, and wholly unique novel is not only about the fierce early decades of this century that largely created the nation we inhabit today but about the process through which one becomes American—what is gained and what is lost. Funny, violent, and quiet by turns, the book shines throughout with a poetic sensibility that understands and conveys the current of melancholy that flows beneath the surface of all change.

The author certainly is not afraid to take chances. All through the book Paul’s closest companions are his two friends Guy and Bernai, both killed in the fighting before Antwerp. They continually appear before him, the one deeply devout, the other a charming flaneur , to comment on his life—and to represent what he is leaving behind in his progress from the Old World toward the New. This device, which could so easily have become both mawkish and showy, remains plausible and ultimately very moving—as is much else in this stirring and richly imagined chronicle of war, love, race, work, and that old thief, time.

Shaman

by Noah Gordon, Dutton, 519 pages.

The winner of the first James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction (awarded by the Society of American Historians) begins with Robert Cole, a young Scottish physician, fleeing his homeland with a price on his head to practice medicine in the suppurating Irish slums of Boston before heading west to frontier Illinois. There he becomes an indispensable fixture in a growing community and raises a deaf son, Shaman, who against very stiff odds becomes a fine physician too.

There’s a great deal of history in this book—Indian, medical, military, political—all of it woven fluently into the arc of a career that carries its protagonist through the rising sectional conflict to the ghastly field hospitals of Gettysburg. It is by no means the least of Noah Gordon’s achievements that he manages to make Dr. Cole’s grueling medical procedures so immediate that we fully share in his joy and wonder when the advent of surgical anesthesia changes everything.

The Living

by Annie Dillard, HarperCollins, 397 pages.

An unusual epic, at once huge and intimate, about the settling of the West begins in 1855, when Ada Fishburn and her infant son, Glee, step ashore on “the rough edge of the world,” where the dark trees run straight down to Puget Sound, and it ends in the lean years of the 189Os, with Jim Hill’s Great Northern having tied the state of Washington to the coming century and Glee a middle-aged man tending bar in Seattle. In between we follow the fortunes of dozens of vividly drawn men and women, but what gives the book its power is not the large cast, or even the tremendous changes that the second half of the last century worked on the far West, but rather the beauty and clarity of the writing and the author’s sure sense of the pace, talk, and enthusiasms of other times, of the sadness of withered enterprise, of the violence and beauty of life.

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