This Old World: A Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War
Nick K. Adams
My Dear Wife and Children:
Civil War Letters from a 2nd Minnesota Volunteer
Nick K. Adams’ great-great-grandfather, Corporal David Brainard Griffin, serving for two years in “Company F of Minnesota’s 2nd Regiment of Volunteers within the Union Army. . .wrote his family nearly every week–at least one hundred letters in all.”
It is these letters that Adams has transcribed and collected in a beautifully printed and bound volume. They were written in pen or in pencil, on whatever paper the Corporal could find; he wrote sitting on the ground or leaning against a supply wagon. He wrote from the most violent war this nation had known. The letters are primary documents from the front.
Letter Number 2: Ft. Snelling, Minn, Oct 12, 1861
My Dear Beloved Wife & Children,
I will take my pen in hand once more, and address a few lines to you, and let you know how I am, and how I am getting along I am well, and as tough as a knot. I have enjoyed myself as well as could be expected. . .I have just come in from dress parade, and as I stood in front of them looking at the soldiers with a band of music on the march before them, the tears came into my eyes. I did wish that you could have been here to see them with me. . .
Letter Number 93: Camp Thomas near Winchester Tenn Aug 6th 1863
Ever dear and affectionate Wife and children,
I will try to write a few lines to you today. . .I am well to day, and I have been well for a long time, and I hope I shall remain in good health the rest of my term of service. It is very hot today. . .it seems as though that you do not get all of my letters, or else you forget to mention any thing about them, one in particular, the one that had a few lines folded up in it, for “your eyes only.”
On the book’s back cover, Adams poses the age-old questions: “What does a father write to his wife and young children when he’s gone to war? Does he explain why he left them? How does he answer their constant questions about his return? Which of his experiences does he relate, and which does he pass over? Should he describe his feelings of separation and loneliness?”
A letter from the Captain of Corporal Brainard’s company to his wife, written from Chattanooga Tennessee on Sept 30th 1863, reads:
It becomes my painful duty to inform you that your husband, formerly a member of my company, was killed in the desperate battle which took place near here on the 19th & 20th of this month. But he fell as becomes a soldier while in the discharge of his duty
I am reminded of the closing line of Wilfred Owen’s poem, written in 1917 from another war:
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori. [It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country]
Corporal David Brainard Griffin was killed in the Battle of Chickamauga.
Nick K. Adams is a retired elementary school teacher and an avid Civil War re-enactor and historical speaker who lives in Washington State.
Steve Wiegenstein’s novel, This Old World, begins:
Charlotte Turner stood beneath a redbud tree and watched the last six chickens of Daybreak scratch for morsels among the hen bit carpeting the cemetery. They’d been kept in a coop for all the years of the war, far enough into the woods that the sound of their clucking couldn’t be heard by a passing raider, then brought down to scratch whenever the weather allowed. Any sign of trouble and she could shoo them into the forest within moments.
And so, This Old World reeled me in and kept me in its thrall.
I am an avid reader, but a critical one, demanding excellence from words and sentences and paragraphs, with which I have always been in love. I am not easily seduced. Steve Wiegenstein had me from that first description as his novel strutted its stuff–the small details that breathe life into a scene; the teasing introduction of a character we sense is important without in the least knowing why. Who is Charlotte Turner? What is Daybreak? It is an irresistible temptation.
I made no attempt to resist.
But I am also a skeptical reader, not inclined to optimism based on a single paragraph, always waiting for the author to disappoint as that first glimpse of excellence proves a lucky shot.
Wiegenstein seldom wavers as he brings his characters onto the stage, one after another, offering just enough to keep us turning pages. Who are they? What are their relationships to each other? What have they done; what have they left undone? What might they do?
We meet the elderly Emile Mercadier; James Turner; the raider, Sam Hildebrand; the Irishman Flynn; Kathleen Flanagan Mercadier; Charley Pettibone; Mrs. Smith; the children-Newton and Adam, Angus, Josephine.
For those of us who, when we read This Old World, didn’t know that it was the second volume in a series about these characters, Wiegenstein doesn’t miss a beat. Not only do his characters not need the first volume, Slant of Light, as an introduction, but the author succeeds in weaving their histories into This Old World so smoothly that there isn’t a seam in the fabric. I never suspected that first book as I read the second.
This Old World is a rich mix that includes the sometimes breathtaking word or phrase. “A burdening silence” skirts too close to poetry to be anything else.
And what could be added to this description of a moment between man and boy:
When Turner awoke, his boots were off and a small boy had pulled up a wooden chair next to his waist, watching him intently, his feet dangling. He was skinny and towheaded, with his hair cropped close to his scalp. Turner scooted himself to a sitting position against the wall. His legs felt heavy.
The subtitle of This Old World is A Novel of Utopian Dreams and Civil War, and if the novel has a weakness it lies in its occasional–and unnecessary–lapse into an explanation of what it has made amply clear in its description, narration, and dialogue. We do not need to read:
a community of equality and sharing, like the Brook Farm and New Harmony communities that had gone before them
When we can be present with Flynn at the exact moment when he understands:
But then the diphtheria took his mother, the war scattered the boys, and Aideen was lost to something, the letter didn’t say what. Starvation from the raiders, that’s what he figured. He’d done it himself in the march to the sea, take the last bag of cornmeal from a family and turn them out to root. Was it any wonder how much hate they all felt?
A reviewer who loves the book she reviews is at a distinct disadvantage–afraid she has said too much and certain she has not said enough.
This Old World, set in a specific time and place, breaks out of the bounds of the Civil War to reveal a firm grasp of the nature of human beings in any situation.
Charley knew it was insane, but in a strange way he missed the war. The days of rapid movement and sense of urgency, the comradeship, the laugh- ter and joking in idle times.
Mr. Wiegenstein understands the intoxication of war, and he grounds us fully in the geography of this one:
After that came years of marching and fighting that stretched across the middle South, Shiloh to Richmond to Chattanooga to Atlanta, ending up in the Carolinas at the Surrender.
In its November 1984 issue, Esquire published an essay by William Broyles Jr, called “Why Men Love War.” You might look it up. http://public.wsu.edu/~hughesc/why_men_love_war.htm
Perhaps the author of This Old World understands more than that about men:
But he was still crying, and he couldn’t seem to make it stop. He had gone through the war unhurt, but here he was on his own doorstep, and he could not get to the door behind him, but could not step off into the shade of the yard, he was stuck here on the stone, and he could not, could not, could not make it stop.
I was born and raised in the eastern Missouri Ozarks — my folks grew up on adjoining farms, and our family roots go deep in Madison, Iron, and Reynolds counties. I went to college at the University of Missouri. After a few years as a newspaper reporter, I returned to school and then got into the higher education biz, with teaching stints at several institutions. I currently live and work in Columbia, Missouri. I’m an avid canoer, rafter, and kayaker on Missouri’s float streams…..a longtime member, friend, and supporter of the Quincy, Illinois, Unitarian Church…..a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals…..a hiker (ok, make that walker)…..a board member of the Missouri Writers’ Guild. I find pennies on the sidewalk more frequently than anyone I know.
Looking for Lydia; Looking for God is another work whose setting–in a particular time and place–are incidental to the human experiences and emotions that are common to all of us, anywhere.
If you didn’t buy a copy of Lydia for someone you love for Christmas, it isn’t too late to consider it for the New Year–
or even for Valentine’s Day