Book review

A story that strains for sympathy

By Chuck Leddy
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2009

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Madison Smartt Bell has given himself an almost insurmountable challenge. A fictional protagonist should be someone readers can identify with. Though Bell pulls out all the literary stops, Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest never quite becomes a character we sympathize with. After all, the real-life Forrest was a slave trader known for his violent temper and vulgar verbal explosions, a man who fought passionately to defend the Confederacy and would later help found the Ku Klux Klan.

In different places in Bell’s narrative, we see Forrest stabbing then shooting a Confederate officer during a quarrel, shooting men who desert his ranks, and beating slaves who don’t follow orders. Forrest is also an unabashed apologist for slavery, arguing that the South’s peculiar institution cares for workers better than do owners of Northern mills where “they got white chirren worken in them mills up there, no better’n slaves and mebbe worse when they ain’t got no master charged to feed’m.’’

Bell tries hard to emphasize Forrest’s positive traits, such as his refusal to lie (he is, both figuratively and literally, a straight shooter), and his willingness occasionally to view slaves as human beings. Indeed, as Bell shows, Forrest fathered children with one of his slaves, much to the displeasure of his wife, Mary Ann. In another episode, Bell describes how Forrest reunited one of his unhappy male slaves with his wife, who had been sold.

In Bell’s narrative, Forrest seems to have a charismatic pull on those around him. Much like Herman Melville’s monomaniacal Captain Ahab, the larger-than-life Forrest evokes a mysterious sense of loyalty in his followers, who seem inescapably tied to their leader’s lost cause. And, like Ahab, Forrest seems at war with the universe, constantly denouncing his military commanders. “I don’t believe the Yankees can whup us,’’ he tells his wife. “I won’t believe that. But we look mighty like whuppen our own selves.’’

Throughout Bell’s novel, Forrest speaks in an antiquated Southern dialect that can be tough to decipher. When an officer tells Forrest that his army is vastly outnumbered, the general snaps back, “It ain’t about how many they is. . . . I’d take one of ourn over ten what they got, any day of the week and twicet on Sunday.’’ Later in the battle, Forrest yells at his troops, “Time’s a-wasten. . . . This battle’s nigh whupped but we still got to whup it. Got to keep after’m, keep up the skeer! Why ain’t that whole line chargen already?’’

Bell obviously knows the military history of the Civil War, and his depictions of the fighting shows that in abundance. History buffs, especially those who lean toward the Confederate side, will find nothing inauthentic to complain about. That said, Bell has an unfortunate penchant for overcooked descriptions of landscape: “Just ahead through a thinning of the trees the downhill slope of another pasture glowed, steeped in dew. At the bottom where there might be a creek, where certainly there were the remains of a disintegrating rock-wall fence, enemy horsemen circled.’’ In another passage, Bell observes that “[t]he day was waning. As the sun dropped away to the west, long rays of bloody light came slantwise through the darkening boles of the trees.’’

It’s often the frailties and shortcomings of fictional characters that make them memorably human. Yet Forrest’s hair-trigger brutality, everyday vulgarity, and unappetizing opinions about slavery eclipse whatever Bell would have us see as “the better angels’’ of his nature. Forrest may burn with passion, yet he’s not quite one of us.

Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.


A Novel About Nathan Bedford Forrest

By Madison Smartt Bell

Pantheon, 352 pp., $26.95

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