Four stylishly gritty Christmas stories, Civil War–set, and often as raw as a field surgeon’s hand, to use a simile of Parry’s (the magnificent Call Each River Jordan, 2001).
In the first, “Star of Wonder,” a Union captain who has lost an arm returns to his home 12 miles outside Pottsville, Pennsylvania, on a frigid Christmas Eve, still grieving his fiancée’s death from typhoid fever and raging inwardly at life: “Life went on, but he did not go with it.” A cab driver takes him just so far but knows it’s death to go on and turns back. Madly setting his life at a pin’s fee, the one-armed captain plows on through hip-deep snow against plastering flakes, the road buried. Near death, he reaches the drear Irish homes of the colliers near his father’s mines and is taken in and restored by the young widow of a private killed in the same battle that took the captain’s arm. Parry displays throughout a matchless grip on detail and customs and never lets sentiment overwhelm the underlying horror. In “Tannenbaum,” a well-educated German immigrant, his Union company’s butt of humor, provides a cheerful Christmas tree for fellow soldiers during a bitterly drear encampment in Virginia. This is an agonizingly moody story, again stunningly detailed, with pages as strong as Stephen Crane or even Tolstoy’s hard-bitten tales of army life in his young manhood. “Nothing But a Kindness” tells of Natty, a Reb who’s lost an eye, been in a brutal Yankee prison camp in New York, at last is released, goes home to his mountain community that divided between the Union and the South. His brother-in-law Lonnie joined the Union troops and was killed. Natty knows that his Pa favored Lonnie and the Union and will probably not be happy to see him, though it’s Christmas Eve. In “Christmas Gift,” Dundee, the top black fieldhand of a deserted plantation, now freed, cares for the dead owner’s mad widow, once Dundee’s horrid mistress.
Inspiration of an enviably high order.