CONFEDERATES by Thomas Keneally


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Keneally's best novel yet, ripest fruit of an imagination that has been grinding for years in an effort to energize history within its fiction--sometimes head-on, sometimes obliquely, but never with quite full success. Success has come. The book is about the American Civil War, about a few soldiers--Usaph, Gus, Cates, Colonel Lafcadio Wheat--belonging to the Shenandoah Volunteers that make up a section of the ""Stonewall"" troops under the command of General Tom Jackson. Jackson here is a nearly empyrean figure who brilliantly, woefully outclasses his Union counterpart McClellan; and by using Jackson as a near-deity figure, Keneally is able, very deftly, to give an overall shape (the shape of military tactics) to the senseless death of mere boys. Small scenes, then, can be concentrated on--and they range from the heartbreakingly idyllic (two Union soldiers, two Shenandoah Volunteers sitting down for a rest together in a glade) to the gruesome (limb-flinging carnage among the morning lupins at Antietam). But Keneally keeps his eye on the masterful Jackson, and the dartings of strategy--loops and salients--make an almost beautiful and plastic frame around the awfullest of particulars. A sub-plot involving a Union-spy pair--a British journalist, a Confederate nurse--is of less import; and Keneally occasionally overuses Americanisms. Yet these are minor objections in a book that keeps the reading heart astir simply by its resonant, plain eloquence. A grave and breathtaking book, a model historical novel by a writer growing ever better.

Pub Date: Sept. 3rd, 1980
Publisher: Harper & Row