WOE TO LIVE ON by Daniel Woodrell

WOE TO LIVE ON

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Grim, grisly exploits with a Civil War band of pro-South ""bushwhackers"" in Missouri and Kansas--as recalled, in terse, lyrical, somewhat mannered prose, by a tough/sensitive teen-age marauder. Jake Roedel, son of Dutch immigrants, eagerly joins the roving ""First Kansas Irregulars,"" together with childhood-chum Jack Bull Chiles--after Jack Bull's landowner-father is killed by an invading gang of ""Federals."" Jake believes in the justice of robbing and killing any Yankee sympathizers. (No women or children, however.) He finds intense joy in the camaraderie with Jack Bull and most of the other young bushwhackers--and hardly minds much when he loses a finger in a shootout with the Yankee militia. But, as the war drugs on. Jake's basic decency, sorely tested by the escalating ugliness, comes into conflict with his cause. The bushwhackers beat and whip three Federals to death, mocking one of the dying men with his wife's love-letters (a vividly brutal sequence); a fourth Federal, spared thanks to Jake's mercy, repays the kindness by murdering Jake's father back home. Then, after a winter of hiding-out (during which Jack Bull lustily courts teen-age-widow Sue Lee Evans, to Jake's jealous chagrin), renewed hostilities leave Jack Bull horribly wounded: Jake must amputate his ""near brother's"" arm--""It was way down there past terrible""--yet can't save his life. So, hungry (like many others) for fierce revenge, Jake joins in the bloody 1863 raid on Lawrence, Kansas--only to find (as he spares two lives) that ""I didn't want to fight Americans or Yanks or rebs or niggers or Dutchman or nothing no more."" (Instead, he'll seek a new, domestic life with Sue Lee, who has borne Jack Bull's baby.) This variation on a familiar wartime coming-of-age scenario is less than persuasive--partly because Jake's narration is often self-conscious in its straining after lean, back-woodsy poetry. At the other, less literary extreme, the sentimental treatment of Jake's comrades (including a token ""nigger"") lapses into B-movie clichÉs and maudlin heroics. Still, as in his 1986 debut, Under the Bright Lights, Woodrell shows a strong talent for pared-down, dark-edged storytelling--especially in fitfully compelling, atmospheric, violent setpieces.

Pub Date: June 5th, 1987
Publisher: Henry Holt