An eager young soldier learns lasting life lessons during the Civil War.
William Joseph Butler is the youngest son of a prominent family in Drew County, Arkansas. The scholarly youth is left behind when his brother–along with the rest of the South–gets swept up with Confederate fever and sets off north to conquer the Yanks. Billy grows restless as the war rages, the bravado and glory of the distant battle never far from his thoughts. One day, he mistakenly stumbles upon two men committing a horrendous crime and intercedes, narrowly escaping. Realizing the danger his son faces, Billy’s father immediately enlists him in the Confederate army, far from vengeance’s reach. Billy is soon overcome with notions of battlefield heroics and is persuaded he can win his sweetheart’s love if he is valiant enough. But his naÃ¯vetÃ© renders him oblivious to the suffering and death that inevitably accompany war. Billy and his fellow soldiers are eager to prove themselves; in one poignant scene, a private attempts to trade rations for a spot in combat. The request is refused, in a fortunate turn, as the soldier is killed moments later in battle. The young regiment learns the hard truths of war as the fighting progresses, enduring injuries and the loss of comrades. Putting the inhuman elements of war into words is a difficult task for any writer and several passages take a sharp detour into the melodramatic as triumphant soldiers are quickly elevated to superhuman status. For the most part, however, Willis writes in an elegant, evocative style and maintains a strong literary touch. He deftly envisions the inane conversations that might occur in the face of enemy fire–mundane requests for the canteen or observations of the natural world around them.
As the book draws to a close, Billy has finally attained a fullness of character that he had previously lacked–a wisdom only achieved through suffering and loss. An erudite, coming-of-age war novel.