Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2012-02-13
- Reviewer: Staff
Olmstead’s (Far Bright Star) elegiac, gritty coming-of-age novel is presented in three dramatic sections: Part I finds 17-year-old Henry Childs living with his mother, a nurse, in Appalachia, W.Va., during the spring of 1950. His father largely absent, Henry excels at baseball and grooms horses. He falls in love with the fanciful Mercy, the older daughter of a dictatorial judge, and the two elope to New Orleans, where he works as a janitor until Mercy’s vindictive brother arrives to take her back. Part II begins with the heartbroken Henry enlisting as a Marine “hunter,” armed with the fierce Browning Automatic, and dispatched to Korea, where he participates in the savage and decisive Chosin Reservoir campaign in frozen northeastern Korea. Snippets of male banter help to leaven the hellish brutality endured by Henry and fellow sniper pal Lew, a veteran of WWII. One year later, Part III opens with the shell-shocked Henry, only a bit older but significantly transformed, returning home to W. Va. up the Kanawha River, where the pain of his mounting personal losses threatens to overwhelm his sanity. Despite the narrative’s darkening vision (“The Lord is a man of war,” says Henry), enough redemption rescues Olmstead’s powerful, desolate, and well-crafted novel from becoming oppressively bleak. (Apr.)
A Korean War odyssey
Robert Olmstead, author of the national bestseller Coal Black Horse, delivers another work of prose with language so painstaking and exact it reads more like poetry. The Coldest Night is a treasure as lean and stripped as the desolate, frozen peaks of Korea where much of the novel takes place.
In rural West Virginia, teenager Henry Childs leads a quiet, contemplative life until a violently catastrophic love affair leaves him broken in body and spirit. Unwilling to return home, Henry lies about his age and joins the Marines. It is 1950 and Korea is on fire, and almost immediately Henry finds himself in the middle of the push north to China that will result in the infamous battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
Henry’s task is one warriors have faced since the days of Odysseus: to stay alive, come home and forget not only the terror of battle, but the beauty of it, its insidious seduction.
This is the third novel featuring the warrior Childs family. Robey Childs’ search for his soldier father among the blood-soaked battlefields of the Civil War was the subject of Coal Black Horse, and in Far Bright Star, Napoleon and Xenophon Childs hunted for Pancho Villa’s raiders in the scorched Mexican desert on the eve of World War I.
If those two acclaimed, award-winning novels are journeys, then The Coldest Night is the destination. Henry’s metamorphosis from child to a man old beyond his years provides truths as cauterizing as a red-hot poker touched to the spot of an amputated limb. Like those of Cormac McCarthy, another writer unafraid of wading through the gore of America’s baser nature, Olmstead’s characters are laconic and their dialogue is spare. Unlike McCarthy, his descriptions of nature are lush and bountiful, lending a measure of beauty to even the most forbidding of landscapes.
All three of Olmstead’s books featuring the Childs family have been written while America was at war, and all three pointedly ask why, if war is so unspeakably awful, it has been as constant as birth in the history of humankind. Olmstead weds the nature of armed aggression to the nature of man without apology, even with compassion, seeking only understanding, which, during our second decade of continuous war, is no insignificant goal.