Most would agree that Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species created a stir among the scientific and religious communities when it was first published (some could argue it's still wreaking havoc to this day). However, in America the hubbub was less about where God fit into the picture and more how Darwin's theory solidified the stance against slavery. The Book That Changed America: How Darwin's Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation by Randall Fuller explores how this one book helped abolitionists build arguments based on scientific fact while at the same time forcing long-held rigid beliefs to be questioned. (I'm looking at you Bronson Alcott.) Until reading this book, I had never thought about its reception in America in terms of its historical context/proximity to the Civil War. These two events seemed to be separate while in reality they were very much interwoven. Leading authors of the day including Henry David Thoreau were well-known and vocal about ending slavery so they not only endorsed Darwin's theories but went on publicity tours to promote it (and give their own opinions). On the Origin of Species showed that all humans had a common ancestor and thus there was no reason why they should not be treated as equals. (The relevance of this book during this time of sociopolitical upheaval in America right now was not lost on me. It just goes to show that we haven't evolved that much since this book hit the shelves.) I was continually surprised by what I learned by reading this book considering that I studied Darwin while I was working on my Bachelor's degree in Anthropology. Instead of solely focusing on the religious impact (which was still significant) it would have been informative to have learned this as well. I suppose that's why Randall Fuller wrote the book! hahaha If you're like me and eager to learn more (especially in light of the insanity that is 2017) then this book is the one for you. 9/10
What's Up Next: Comics Squad #3: Detention by Jennifer L. Holm (and others)
What I'm Currently Reading: The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories Volume One: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin
I had not read any books by Sebastian Barry before, and when I read some of the reviews of this book I realised that the author has been chronicling, in some of his novels, the story of two Irish families. One of the protagonists of this story, and its narrator, Thomas McNulty, is a descendant of one of these families. Rest assured that you don’t need to have read Barry’s other novels to enjoy this one (I didn’t find out about this until I had finished reading it) but now that I know I confess I’d like to see how they all relate to each other.
Thomas is a young boy who ends up in America fleeing the Irish famine and we follow him through his many adventures. Very early on he meets a slightly older boy, John Cole, and they are inseparable throughout the story, or almost. In XIX century America they live through many experiences: they take to the stage dressed as girls to entertain miners (who have no women around); when they are old enough they join the army and fight in the Indian Wars. They later go back to the stage, this time with Thomas playing the girl (a part he enjoys), John her suitor and an Indian girl they’ve adopted, Winona, as their side act. As times get harder, they go back to the army, this time fighting for the North in the Civil War. And… it goes on.
The book is narrated in the first person by Thomas, who has a very peculiar voice, full of expressions appropriate to the historical era, some Irish terms, colloquialisms, witty and humorous saying, poetic passages and amateur philosophical reflexions. In some ways it reminded me of novels narrated by tricksters or other adventurers (I’ve seen people mention Huckleberry Finn, although the characters and the plot are quite different and so is the language used), but although Thomas is somebody determined to survive and easy-going, he never wishes anybody harm and seems warm and kind-hearted, even if he sometimes ends up doing things he lives to regret. I know some readers don’t enjoy first-person narrations. Whilst it can put you right inside the skin of the character, it also makes it more difficult to get to know other characters and if you don’t like the way a character talks, well, that’s it. Although I really enjoyed Thomas and the use of language, I know it won’t be for everybody, so I recommend checking it out first. Some reviews say that he is too articulate, but although we don’t know all the details of the character’s background, he is clearly literate and corresponds and talks to people from all walks of life through the book (poets, actors, priests, the major and his wife). And he is clearly clever, quick, and a good observer.
Although the story is set in America in mid-XIX century and recounts a number of historical events, these are told from a very special perspective (this is not History with a capital H, but rather an account of what somebody who had to live through and endure situations he had no saying on felt about the events), and I this is not a book I would recommend to readers looking for a historical treatise. Yes, Thomas and John Cole love each other and have a relationship through the whole book and Thomas wears a dress often. There is little made of this and Thomas is better at talking about events and other people than at discussing his own feelings (and that, perhaps, makes the snippets he offers us all the more touching). Although perhaps the historical accuracy of some parts of the story (mostly about the characters’ relationship) stretches the imagination, the descriptions of the battles of the Indian Wars and the Civil War, and especially the way those involved in them felt, are powerful and evocative, horrible and heart-wrenching. There are no true heroes or villains, just people who play their parts as cogs in machines they don’t understand. (There are funny moments like when quite a racist character discovers that he’s fighting in the pro-abolition side. His reason for fighting is because the major he’d fought under in the Indian Wars asked him to. He never thought to ask what the war was about). Thomas reflects at times upon the similarities between what is happening there and what had happened in Ireland and does not miss the irony of the situation.
I had problems choosing some quotations from the book as I’d highlighted quite a lot of it, but here go:
If you had all your limbs they took you. If you were a one-eyed boy they might take you too even so. The only pay worse than the worst pay in America was army pay.
We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.
The bottom was always falling out of something in America far as I could see.
Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop.
Things just go on. Lot of life is just like that. I look back over fifty years of life and wonder where the years went. I guess they went like that, without me noticing much. A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands. Can’t do much about that.
There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and at the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.
He is as dapper as a mackerel.
How we going to count all the souls to be lost in this war?
Men so sick they are dying of death. Strong men to start that are hard to kill.
Killing hurts the heart and soils the soul.
I loved the story and the characters and I hope to read more novels by Barry in the future. I recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction and westerns, with a big pinch of salt, those who love narrators with a distinctive voice, and fans of Barry. From now on I count myself among them.
Thanks to Faber and Faber and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.
Lately I've been groping toward one of those revelations that may be obvious to some but is incredibly illuminating of some of the problems in our country today, which is that we focus on the wrong things when it comes to the military history of the Civil War.
This is something that I've come to appreciate only gradually. When I was growing up what I knew about the Civil War was defined by the literature generated by the centenary of the conflict, during which authors such as Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote wrote highly readable (and still widely read) series about the conflict. These books generally concentrated on the war in the eastern theater, where the Armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia butted heads for four years before the Union forces finally ground down the Confederate Army. This is where most of the memorable battles (First Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg) were fought, and where some of the most recognizable names served. This conception stayed with me though high school (surviving even my largely uninformed reading of James McPherson's classic book on the era) and up through college, though more through lack of reexamination than anything else.
It wasn't until I read Brian Holden Reid's short study of the major wars of the mid-19th century that I began to appreciate how misguided I have been. Reid pointed out something that seemed so obvious in retrospect, which is that, contrary to the narrative of a conflict that was decided only with the defeat of Robert E. Lee in Virginia, the war was really won by the Union much earlier, through the effective adoption of Winfield's Scott's proposal to economically strangle the South with a combination of blockade and control of the Mississippi River. Focusing the war on this aspect of it change the conceptualization of the war dramatically, from one in which Union generals are continually outmatched by the military genius of Robert E. Lee to one where the Union asserts a steadily growing dominance over the South over the course of the war, while the Confederacy increasingly finds itself in a struggle it cannot win.
Given this, I've come to appreciate just how skewed our focus of the war is in the popular imagination. This has its origins in the war itself, as the eastern theater was better covered in the press, which highlighted the clash of the two armies and their respective efforts to capture the other side's capitals. In the process, though, they understated three other aspects which were decisive to the war's outcome: the fighting in the "west" (i.e. the Ohio and Mississippi Review valleys), the U.S. Navy's blockade of the South, and the diplomatic aspects of the war. Perhaps it's understandable why these didn't get more attention at the time -- the naval blockade was grindingly dull for the most part, and the diplomatic developments were largely behind the scenes -- but it was those parts of it which determined the fate of our nation, and where we should be focusing our attention when we study it now.
That we have focused both then and afterward on the more narratively exciting aspects of the war is one of the reasons why our popular understanding of the war has been so mistaken. There's another factor that I think is at play, though, which makes my relatively esoteric point here relevant -- our misguided focus on the eastern theater has contributed to the romanticization of the "lost cause" of the Confederacy. By focusing so much attention upon the one theater where the Confederate forces performed the best, we have exaggerated the viability of the Confederacy and made its defeat seem more tragic as a result. That Southerners then and their descendants since have done this is perhaps understandable, but that we continue to do this more generally is inexcusable. It's hardly the only, or even primary reason why we have neo-Confederates running around today refusing to accept the outcome of what was largely a doomed effort from the start, but it certainly doesn't help.