A Voice in the Wilderness
Posted by: Neil Hollands
With BEA just past, we’ve been prognosticating plenty at Book Group Buzz about great forthcoming books. I’ll add my voice to the chorus, pointing toward a debut work of historical literary fiction, Wilderness, by Lance Weller.
It’s the story of Abel Truman. Reeling from grief at the sudden loss of his wife and child, the native New Yorker heads south, and finds himself fighting on the side of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Soldiering doesn’t really agree with Abel, but he’s a survivor and in May of 1864, he’s a veteran in a cause that he recognizes has become a losing one. Still, he doesn’t expect the trauma coming his way at the Battle of the Wilderness, a violent conflagration in which he loses two soldier friends he’s come to care about and the use of his arm. The kindness of strangers saves his life, but even that is spoiled by a horrible twist of fate. Once again adrift, Abel heads west to the coast of the Pacific in Washington State, as far as he can get from his memories of family and war.
Weller’s novel alternates between the Battle of the Wilderness (I didn’t spoil anything that Abel himself doesn’t mention in the books first few chapters; the devil’s in the details) and the equally fateful events of 1899, when accompanied only by a mangy dog, Abel leaves behind his hermit’s life to head east for one last try at redemption. Encounters with some sociopathic drifters, a mixed race couple, and an immigrant Chinese girl soon put him in the thick of still more momentous events.
This is the best work of Civil War fiction that I’ve encountered since Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and I may like it even more than that. Weller captures the epic landscapes of 19th century America, the almost surreal violence of the Civil War, and the resilience of the human spirit in a fast-reading 300 pages that contain more story than many much longer books. His prose communicates the desolation of wilderness, both that without and that within. I heartily recommend this title to fans of historical fiction, dog lovers, or any reader looking for an emotionally powerful story who can bear scenes of violence and atrocity. Bloomsbury will issue the book in October.