A man with a long connection to Emily Dickinson loses his faith in the midst of battle.
Narrator Robert Winter is a chaplain in the United States Army in the mid-19th century—giving him a firsthand view of the fracturing of society leading to the Civil War. The novel is structured as Robert’s correspondence with Dickinson, whose ideals and aesthetics serve as a contrast to his own loss of faith. Lock does a fine job of making Winter feel like a man of his time: Though he’s progressive by the standards of a white man of his day, his blind spots are pointed out by some, including a young Samuel Clemens. As he moves from conflict to conflict, Robert’s own mind becomes more tortured. “There is no way to tell of it in words,” he writes, regarding war, before offering up a grotesque metaphor. The novel is enlivened by signs that Robert is, while not an unreliable narrator, possibly a selective one. Several major life events happen to him in passing between two of the book’s sections, and his own (chronologically) first encounter with Dickinson isn’t revealed on the page until a good distance into the book—which, in turn, prompts the reader to re-evaluate some of the pair’s earlier interactions. Although this is the story of Robert’s growing loss of faith, he shows a propensity for using Jesus’ life as a metaphor for his own. As with each installment of Lock’s The American Novels series (A Fugitive in Walden Woods, 2017, etc.), this work stands on its own entirely well, though readers of his prior books will find connections both thematic and literal.
Lock deftly tells a visceral story of belief and conflict, with abundant moments of tragedy and transcendence along the way.