Saturday, July 14, 2001

Review -- Stonewall: A Novel (John J. Dwyer, 1998)

In this excellent work of biographical fiction, Dwyer relates the story of Thomas Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson as a novel. The 632-page work delves into Jackson’s life, of which his Civil War fame is but a minor part. Indeed, the war doesn’t even start until page 400. Yet the subject matter is much more than a simple biography: a novel with dialog, character development and major themes. As the author points out, where the historical record is absent he uses dramatic license to fill in the gaps. The resulting story encompasses Jackson, his friends and neighbors of Lexington, Virginia, and the even bigger story of the times in which they lived.

The book starts out reading much like a biography instead of a novel, and a rather slow paced one at that, with little dialog or character development, up until the time when Jackson settles into his teaching career at the VMI in Lexington. Yet these pages set the stage for the rest of the book, which does become more interesting the further along it goes. A few interesting details emerge in this early part, including Jackson's early years of loss (most family members died when he was young) and the beginning of a close relationship with younger sister Laura. Jackson’s academic career at West Point and his heroic charge up Chapultepec Hill during the Mexican war are further highlights. Then the novel abruptly jumps from the end of the Mexican war, when Jackson receives military honors, to his life at VMI. Only later, in a few sentences, are we even told about the circumstances leading up to the VMI assignment and the year or so spent in the Florida everglades after the war.

Much of the book relates Jackson’s life in Lexington, Virginia during the 1850s as Jackson progressed from a very shy and awkward professor to a community and church leader. The author spares no details in relating Jackson's faults as a very dry, ineffective teacher, including the many class pranks and the conflict with James Walker, the student that Jackson had court-martialed and expelled from the VMI.

Sister Laura and the Junkin sisters, Ellie and Maggie, are among the women given special emphasis in the novel. Each woman has her own story to tell and exists independently of Jackson, yet Jackson is always nearby, showing them his care and concern.

Jackson maintains a lifelong relationship with Laura, corresponding over the years with a sister who becomes increasingly bitter in a life with an alcoholic husband who neglects his wife and children. Thomas visits her often at her home in the Allegheny Mountains, spending time with her children while teaching them of God and praying that Laura would come to peace with God and salvation in Christ; but it is not to be. The Civil War finally draws a wedge between her and her brother, whom she disowns in a vitriolic letter in which she writes "I would rather my brother be dead than a rebel."

We first meet the Junkin sisters, Maggie and Ellie, in their home at a party that Jackson has been invited to. Maggie (later known as Margaret Junkin Preston, the famous "Poetess of the Civil War"), in her early 30s, and Ellie, mid-20s, live with their father, George Junkin, the president of Washington College. Rather immature and tomboyish, the sisters enjoy riding horses and dressing up alike, and are very close to each other.

Maggie, four years older than Jackson, is rather caustic and flippant, the family poetess who expresses her secret pains in her writings. When Jackson meets her she has already published a few books of poetry. Ellie, by contrast, is the very picture of the humble Christian servant, the sweet and giving character that everyone in town loves, the one skilled in social graces, always caring for others and helping them out in time of need. When Jackson expresses romantic interest in the younger sister, Maggie flames up with resentment, insisting that her sister deserves better than that buffoon, while harboring bitterness towards Jackson for coming between her and Ellie.

Jackson and Ellie are together for little more than a year, until Ellie dies in childbirth. Maggie, angry with God as well as Jackson, departs for Europe on her own, to spare her family the blackness of her spirit. Meanwhile, Jackson has started corresponding with Maggie as a way of working out his own grief. Maggie finally comes to her senses and peace with God over her own guilt and anger, and, returning home, develops a close friendship with Thomas Jackson. He and Maggie spend many happy times together, laughing and sharing common interests to a degree that even Thomas and Ellie had not enjoyed. Yet their growing realization of romantic love for each other means turmoil as they feel tempted by the very thing forbidden them. For the Presbyterian church has decreed that one cannot marry his or her deceased spouse's sibling; brothers- and sisters-in-law are forever brother and sister before God, and therefore can never marry each other. Frustrated but at last accepting the hopelessness of the situation, Jackson suddenly directs his affections to his friend's sister-in-law, Anna Morrison. Maggie too relents, finally noticing the attentions of the widower John Preston. Within a few weeks of each other, Jackson marries Anna and Maggie marries John Preston.

This is Virginia of the 1850s, though, and the events leading up to the Civil War are very much a part of the characters' lives. Stonewall: The Novel tackles the issues leading up to the Civil War, from the perspective of Stonewall and the other Virginians of his time: a very different view from today's politically correct environment. The author mentions several historical facts and statistics as a way of introducing the topic, noting that the importing of new slaves had ended some 50 years before, slaves were becoming harder to come by, and that fewer than 25% of Southerners owned even one slave. Most owners did not mistreat their slaves, as it would be foolish to harm your own property in which you had invested a lot of money. The fear of slave revolts, especially Nat Turner's revolt twenty years past, further instills such discipline in even the whites who do not fear God.

The Christian, Calvinist men of Virginia can find no biblical condemnation of slavery and, though somewhat uncomfortable with the institution, see it as an acceptable situation in an imperfect world, so long as slaves are treated well (as most are). They also see a great cruelty in turning loose the many slaves they feel are ill-equipped to handle life on their own, if suddenly turned out from their more-secure situations. Many favor the idea of sending the blacks to the Liberia colony, where they can establish their own civilization (an idea later proposed even by President Lincoln; the idea did not originate with him).

As the conflict between North and South intensifies, the book points out that Harriet Beecher Stowe had never even set foot in a slave-holding state and that her book did not represent the mainstream of slavery. Then the radical John Brown goes on a killing spree in Kansas, killing slave-owners as well as a freed black. The southerners are appalled at how so many well-known Northerners applaud Brown as a great hero rather than a violent outlaw, and no one speaks the voice of reason. (The situation seems eerily familiar in our day, when people praise abortion-clinic bombers, except that very few in our day do so, and would be rightly criticized for such ideas. Thus we realize how extremely polarizing and influential the northern abolitionists were in their day).

Throughout his life, Jackson does not own slaves, except later on when a few young Negroes in the community, knowing him to be a more benevolent master, ask him to purchase them. With these slaves he arranges a definite timetable for their freedom after working for a period of time, helping out his wife and with the work around the house. Jackson also starts up the first successful Sunday School in town for Negro children, amidst opposition from some whites who point to the law on the books that forbids the public assembly of blacks (a reaction against the terrible Nat Turner incident).

The author develops several strong black characters, detailing their lives and changing attitudes, such as Ruthie, the Junkin's older household servant, and Lylburn Downing, an easy-going young Negro who hungers for God's word and wants to learn how to read. With assistance from Jackson and a few friends in town, he even attends church services -- hiding in a closet behind the pastor. He often hangs around the church building after hours, pretending to be a preacher with an imaginary audience. He does learn how to read, and reads his Bible to fellow blacks who nickname him "preacher." Near the story's end, Lylburn is faced with the possibility of freedom. But with most of the white men gone to war, he sees the desperate plight of the many women and children at home, many of whom have lost loved ones, and understands his calling to stay and minister to those in his community.

The latter part of the book details Jackson's military victories as well as his personal life with wife Anna, and his role in the Christian revivals that swept through the Confederate troops of northern Virginia. The southern troops, though hopelessly outnumbered, have many stunning victories over the Union, with Jackson ever giving glory to God for those victories.

Jackson the military strategist also emerges, with an especially telling scene immediately after the Confederate victory at Manassas, or the First Bull Run. The author describes the Northerners' panic as they are suddenly pushed back by an enemy they had belittled; now they fear the worst, even possible evacuation of Washington City: a moment when the Confederates had the best opportunity to win the war and their right to secede. Yet the rains come and the southerners have many wounded themselves and are deterred from further action. Then soon afterwards, Jackson has a conversation with a superior officer, in which he presents a well-thought-out plan to come around and encircle the North, converge on the Capitol, and press for surrender. Jackson points out the necessity of quick, swift and aggressive action, for time is their enemy. Given time, the North will regroup, and with its many more resources will outlast the south and its very limited resources, both of men and supplies for their people. But like Ahithophel of Biblical days, whose wise counsel to the rebel Absalom against his father King David was ignored, Jackson's astute ideas are ignored, thus setting the stage for what Jackson predicts and would indeed come to pass, bringing the downfall of the Confederate cause. From the biblical parallel the reader can conclude that God has instead chosen to frustrate the good advice of an Ahithophel, or a Stonewall Jackson, for His own purposes, while being gracious to Jackson by giving him many great victories in Northern Virginia, for a time.

Jackson's military brilliance and successes are indeed shown as being crucial to the Southern cause, with Robert E. Lee telling the wounded Jackson that "you have lost your left arm, but I have lost my right arm." As mentioned at the novel's beginning, so becomes clear at the end, the words of the New Orleans bishop ordered to pray when Lincoln's body made its tour through the south: "O Lord, when Thou didst decide to defeat the Confederate States of America, Thou first had to remove Thy servant Stonewall Jackson."

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