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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-07-23
- Reviewer: Staff
War and remembrance combine powerfully in this rugged debut novel of the horrors of combat and the fierceness of nature. Thirty-five years after the Civil War, Abel Truman, a reclusive, isolated survivor of the cauldron of fire that raged in the 1864 Battle of the Wilderness, where he fought as a Confederate soldier and lost the use of his left arm, begins a journey home. In a tone that owes much, sometimes too much, to Hemingway, he braves the violence of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula landscape and people as he ruminates on his losses and returns from the outer limits of civilization. Weller’s depiction of the old soldier’s journey through memory is the strongest part of the book, with long, vivid passages that evoke the sensory assault of combat and its aftermath. The small details of the battlefield, from the field hospital where his friends died to his glimpse of “a dented tuba lying lost in the middle of a swampy little creek and loose horses too numerous for counting” are potent Civil War prose, a respectful echo of Stephen Crane and Ambrose Bierce. Less successful are the scenes near the end of his trek, where race and violence and kindness jumble together in a murky variety of redemption and sacrifice. Agent: JET Literary Associates. (Sept.)
Escaping horror at the edge of the world
Lance Weller’s first novel, Wilderness, recounts the harsh world of the Civil War and its aftermath unflinchingly. At the same time, he redeems it with flashes of tenderness as bright and ephemeral as the shooting stars that fascinate his protagonist, Abel Truman.
Truman is an odd but interesting character to embody the era’s small glimmers of kindness. When we first meet him he’s a gruff, old, banged-up, frightful-looking Civil War veteran. He lives at the edge of the ocean in the Pacific Northwest with a dog who’s in only slightly better shape than he is. He can almost always be counted on doing and saying the wrong thing, sometimes to the point where he puts his own life in peril. Yet his compassion is unsullied, whether he’s easing a young soldier to his death, saving the life of a blind Chinese girl who still remembers him in her old age, or caring for his dog. In turn Abel is blessed, once in a blue moon, by the kindness of strangers.
Like so many Civil War tales, Wilderness is a story of journeys through a chaotic world. The war has destroyed the social order, and no one knows what will replace it. Even nature, described in Weller’s beautiful prose, has been unsettled, the trees blasted apart by cannonballs and meadows set on fire.
Trees, by the way, aren’t the only things blasted apart by cannonballs. Weller’s depictions of a battle Truman and his fellow soldiers find themselves in are as horrific as his descriptions of nature are gorgeous. The miracle is that Abel Truman keeps his gnarly humanity even after witnessing such things. With its acknowledgment of both horror and beauty, Wilderness is an impressive debut.
Read Lance Weller's story of the inspiration for Wilderness.