By Thomas Wolber, Assistant Professor of MFL
Robert Olmstead’s war trilogy is now complete. The first book, “Coal Black Horse” was published in 2007, followed by “Far Bright Star” in 2009. The third book, “The Coldest Night,” was just released on April 3.
Reading the cycle in its entirety is a gripping and moving experience. The novels continue to haunt you long after you are done with them. The aftershocks keep coming.
What makes the cycle a trilogy? The novels follow the members of one West Virginia family as they fight in love and in war.
Robey Childs, a boy of 14, lives during the American Civil War (1861-65) and witnesses the slaughter of the Battle of Gettysburg (1863) first-hand.
Napoleon Childs, his son, is part of the Pancho Villa Expedition into Mexico under General John J. Pershing (1916-17), where he is captured and brutally tortured. And great-grandson Henry Childs fights in the Korean War (1950-53), another “forgotten war” that claimed countless American lives.
The three books have numerous overarching themes in common as well. For example, the pervasive love and reverence for horses, whose innate sense and intelligence in the book is often superior to that of humans, is evident in all three books.
Another thematic motif is the presence of the supernatural, manifested in dreams and visions.
I have no doubt that, in due time, students will be writing term papers on Olmstead’s magic realism, epistemology, cosmology, archetypes, cinematic techniques and his gripping depictions of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
In addition, the novels’ internal structures are identical.
Part one of each book covers the departure and trip to the battlefield, part two takes the reader into the heart of the darkness and the belly of the beast and part three deals with the exit and the aftermath.
In the center of book two, and thus in the center of the trilogy as a whole, is death – the almost unspeakable and surely unfathomable death of Preston, a rich and spoiled, reckless and useless gambler and braggart who “wanted to experience life to the very edge.”
It is Preston’s transgressions that trigger the disastrous events in the second book, and he pays for it through horrific torment and torture and ultimately, with his life.
The three wars were meticulously researched by the author, and his depictions seem historically accurate.
However, the military conflicts form merely the backdrop.
The life-and-death battles occurring in the books transcend time and space and reach into the deepest and most elemental depths of humankind.
Love and war are timeless and universal. It is not a coincidence that Olmstead chose many of his mottos from ancient texts such as Homer and the Bible.
It is there, at the dawn of western civilization, where the roots of our existence and essence lie. Everything that follows is merely the reenactment of battles fought millennia ago.
It would be an interesting topic to explore if Olmstead’s novels are meant to celebrate or to condemn war, but it would be the wrong question to ask.
War simply is, always has been, and always will be, whether we like it or not.
Some readers may disagree with the subjective sentiment that wars are natural phenomena on par with volcanic eruptions or earthquakes and that we have little control over them.
For one thing, there are objective political and financial interests behind war, and there exist other, less destructive and more constructive outlets for the primeval bloodlust that is in all of us, even and especially in the little boys who set cats afire.
War may indeed be the father of all things, as Heraclitus says, but the Heraclitean word “polemos” can be translated in non-militant ways as well (“strife,” “confrontation,” or “competition”).
But it is certainly true that Olmstead’s characters perceive war as an overpowering mystery against which human resistance is futile.
Olmstead’s characters are defined by their war experiences, but don’t seem to care for the ideological reasons of the wars they fight in: for who or what is right or wrong.
These are considerations that barely make it to the surface in the three novels. What matters more is the existential struggle the soldiers are witnessing or experiencing first-hand and that will define them forever.
His characters are catapulted out of their ordinary existence and enter a different realm and state of being altogether where they are confronted with nothingness and meaninglessness, godlessness and inhumaneness through their experiences of war.
Their manhood is sorely tested, and lesser men perish because they cannot bear the horror.
Preston, the fool, does not last because he never learned a single lesson in life and never found the truth. But Robey, Napoleon, and Henry Childs endure and survive the ordeal, emerging as strong, mature leaders.
At his public reading on April 3 at the local Beehive Books on 25 S. Sandusky Street, Olmstead rejected the word “writer,” claiming the word “author” for himself instead. It is an interesting choice of words.
An author, as opposed to a mere writer, carries the weight of the world on his (or her) shoulders. An author has an authority and a responsibility that a writer does not know.
An author can be – must be – an authoritative and conscientious guide and cicerone, as surefooted as the Black Coal Horse, the Rattler, and Gaylen, the cinnamon bay.
It would be easy to get lost in the abyss of the underworld forever, but Olmstead not only takes his readers into the most crepuscular and evil places of humankind, a brave and courageous tour de force indeed, but he also manages to take us back to the surface and into the sunlight so that we may live on with renewed understanding and hope while recognizing our frailty and fallibility.
Olmstead’s books are insightful and gripping, forcing his reader to face many an inconvenient truth.
There is terror in these pages, but also much beauty. Sometimes, the two are inseparable.
The books are not for the faint-hearted, but reading them would be a rewarding and worthwhile experience that just might change your views and perhaps your life forever.
Isn’t this what good literature is all about?