A Civil War novel chronicles a teenager’s participation in the Battle of Natural Bridge as a Confederate soldier and his life in the defeated South.
In March 1865, Virgil Hill is a military student at the West Florida Seminary and nearly 17 years old. Yankee soldiers intend to cross the Natural Bridge over the St. Marks River before they march into Florida’s state capital, Tallahassee. Gen. Sam Jones and his second-in-command, Gen. William Miller, realize they desperately need to recruit as many able-bodied men as possible to push back the Union Army, and that necessity is the magnet that draws Virgil into the war. On the way, he meets Neil Clary, a New Orleans native wizened by adversity—he’s only three years older than Virgil, but no one would ever guess that. Neil confesses that he’s a deserter—he ran away from the Tennessee Army, carrying the identification papers belonging to another man, which he is incapable of reading. He asks Virgil to write a letter for him to Ella Mayfield, a girlfriend devotedly waiting for his return. But Neil doesn’t survive the great Battle of Natural Bridge, hauntingly described by Abrams (A Piece of Bad Luck, 1995) in poetically stylized prose: “It is hard to stay collected at first. Hundreds of wild-eyed devils come firing and the high snarl, the sigh of lead looking hard for you can quicken the blood, make you grit your teeth.” Once the battle is won, Virgil treks back to the family farm and attempts to find his missing father, to no avail. He then travels in search of Ella, dedicated to giving her a ring Neil wore, and ends up working on her farm for months, lost between strenuous labor and burgeoning love.
Abrams captivatingly depicts the atmosphere at the time—many of the Union soldiers attempting to cross the Natural Bridge are black, and few in the Confederate units have ever seen armed black men before. The sense of prideful triumph from the victory quickly evaporates into despair following Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender. Virgil is intriguingly complex, especially for such a young man—never a slave owner but still furious over the South’s loss, he is steadfastly unwilling to submit himself to despair, though he considers his youth spent. The author’s writing is an unusual mélange of period dialect and lyrical meditation, which creates a mood saturated in gravity: “I saw that the body remained in varying degrees of holes and rents, but that the main ingredient had moved away. The dead are not there anymore, is what I saw, and that the body alone is but a paltry affair and no more than a house abandoned.” Readers who fancy Faulkner—both for his expressive prose and his authentic portrayals of the American South—are likely to find in Abrams a kindred literary spirit. The novel’s pace plods a bit in the second half but never fully becomes slothful, and even that modest lethargy is more than compensated for by the intelligence and refinement of the prose.
A sublimely sensitive war tale rendered in exquisite language.