by Taylor Brown
St Martin’s Press | 2016
Hardback: 288 pages (978-1250077974)
Awards and Honors:
Free ARC copy provided by St Martin’s Press in exchange for my honest opinion.
“War is cruelty. There is no use trying to reform it.
The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.”
William Tecumseh Sherman
My initial reaction when I finished the book was to compare it to Cold Mountain. Not so much the book, Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier but the movie rendition. Both focused on the waning years of the Civil War and each described the protagonist’s journey through a “fallen land” seeking refuge and the comfort of a peaceful existence; uncertain if such a place in fact existed.
The good, the bad and the ugly side of humanity is seen at its extremes during war. Heroes are remembered, villains’ actions recounted and examined over and over in literature, the cruelties to the land and its people enshrined in memorials and photographs. This American civil war, viewed through history’s eyes, is very much international as well.
Slavery, central to the fight, highlights the plight of those forcefully brought to the land. Others recent immigrants arrived by choice or circumstance. Displaced persons escaping horrors aboard and seeking a life in the middle of our country’s unspeakable strife. My own ancestors included three brothers from Canada who had migrated to northern New York escaping famine and disease. They joined the Union Army as teenagers in the early years of the war with the promise of a future in this country if they survived. Only one did.
In the Fallen Land, we meet a young teen, Callum, who in a few short years has fled an Irish workhouse, an American orphanage, and survived near death on the sea. This scrappy youngster soon learns what he must to survive yet the skills he acquires out of necessity could spell his demise.
Falling in with a band of desperadoes led by a self-interested mercenery known as the Colonel, Callum reveals his better angels when he strives to protect the 17-year old girl, Ava, from rape although suffering near fatal injuries from one of his compatriots in the process.
Without any background story we are left to wonder what draws Callum back to Ava’s farm other than the need to be with her, but return he does…riding the Colonel’s beloved horse, Reiver. Infuriated beyond reason, the Colonel tracks Callum back to Ava’s farm where he hopes to recover his horse but arriving meets other maundering bandits and is killed.
Blamed by the Colonel’s men for the Colonel’s death, the wounded Callum and Ava begin a treacherous journey from Virginia to the coast of Georgia where Callum believes he has distant relatives. Ava’s life story is no less tragic than Callum’s and the two forge a close bond as they travel together through thick and mostly thin.
The description of their arduous trek, at times, seemed too contrived. It’s hard to believe that a leaderless gang would continue tracking these two youngsters as long as they did through war and harsh weather merely for revenge. The ultimate villain, the slave-tracker brother of the Colonel hired to track the duo lends further intense drama to the story.
The descriptions of war and its horror are authentic. The violence so graphic you will want to turn your head away. The hunger so real you can feel it. The cold so brutal you will check your body for frostbite. Yet amid the scorched earth, small acts of kindness from strangers will reaffirm what Browning wrote in the poem, Pippa’s Song, that “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”. You have to believe it.