Sunday, April 2, 2023

Confederates, a novel by Thomas Keneally (1979)


Why doesn’t this book, first published in 1979, show up on lists of the best Civil War novels ever written? Maybe because the author is Australian? It can’t be because the book focuses on Confederate soldiers (of all ranks). Other lesser novels of that sort (Shiloh by Shelby Foote, or the barely tolerable Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier) regularly make lists of Ten Best Civil War novels.

Unlike those two books, this one is not tacitly pro-Confederate. The flaws of the Confederacy, both in its beliefs and in its functioning, are displayed clearly.  As part of that, its characters are complex and insightfully portrayed, whether it’s General Tom Jackson (aka Stonewall) or the men of various ranks serving under him. Jackson is an anti-slavery, religiously-convinced-anyway zealot of the Southern cause, determined to attack the Union at whatever cost to anybody. He comes across as fascinating, charismatic, brilliant, and vicious, with an oddly and believably incoherent set of feelings about the world around him as he tries relentlessly to destroy the enemy. He knows what he wants, even if it’s never clear that he knows logically why he wants it. It’s a religious feeling, a messianic power he never questions.

The soldier characters, and there are many of them of all kinds of backgrounds, from Generals on down, are not always as individually interesting as Jackson, but taken together their varied stories are fascinating and they serve to create a panorama of the kind of men who soldiered for Jackson and Lee. Their various fates are uniquely and believably and often enough horribly portrayed. Yet the book is also very funny at times. In some ways, it’s a book of character sketches, and all of the characterizations (or let’s say nearly all) are convincing and filled with both psychological and social insight. If a few times I wished that the story would return to the Generals, that’s only because the portrayal of those actual historical human beings was so compelling. As far as I know, some of the non-General characters might be based on real persons as well, but Keneally doesn’t say.

This is a book of action as well, both the action of war and of politics. It handles those subjects like the others, with a level of precisely realized historical realism that few other Civil War novels (or indeed many war novels period) can match.

The weakest portion of the book, for me, is the portrayal of the women characters, who are connected to some of the few less convincing and in some cases annoying subplots. They’re not one-dimensional in either social context or character, and it’s reasonable enough that they’re mostly not the center of events, although desire for them often is. But few of them are as believable as the male characters, and some of the comic elements of their roles feel like they come as much from the 1970s (when the book was written) as from the 1860s. 

Some of the near-to-the-conclusion battle scenes are as realistically believable (and necessarily graphic) as any I know of in war literature.

All in all, Confederates is a vivid and powerful novel that taught me as much about the life of Civil War soldiers as any work of fiction I’ve read.