The Civil War turns a boy into a man in Olmstead’s latest novel (after Stay Here with Me, 1996, etc.).
In 1863, a woman on a farm in the mountains, far removed from battle, has a premonition that tells her the war is over. The fighting might continue, but she knows that the outcome has been decided. She wants her husband to come home, and she sends her 14-year-old son to find him. Since Robey knows that this quest means the end of his childhood, he doesn’t want to go. And his mother doesn’t want to send him. But both have fated roles in this austere, elegiac fairy tale. Like all folkloric heroes, Robey is given gifts to help him on his journey, but the greatest is the coal black horse. The boy is smart enough to know that the horse is smarter than he is, and he allows the animal to be his protector and guide. As he travels across a country at war with itself, Robey sees chaos and carnage—not just soldiers killed by soldiers, but families murdered by unknown killers and women and girls brutalized by bestial men. The actual battlefield is a bedlam of dead men, dying men and scavengers who do not distinguish between the two. Olmstead juxtaposes scenes of man-made desolation with quietly lyrical depictions of the landscape and the animals that inhabit it—including the coal black horse—but he doesn’t sharpen the contrast between disparate phenomena so much as he evinces a primordial universe: a time before gods, before morality, a time in which war is as natural and inevitable as birdsong in the morning. If the story ends on a hopeful note, it’s not because Robey has found redemption or meaning—neither is available in the world to which he’s traveled. It is because, while death is relentless and indomitable, life is, too.
Powerful and poetic.