Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Stonewall Jackson is dead.
It's 1863 Civil War America and a mother with a premonition pulls her son, Robey, from bed in the pre-dawn hours and gives him one command, go to the battlefields and bring your father home. Without Jackson, the Confederacy is lost, and the war is just as good as over.
Jarring immediacy, and sleepy eyed confusion are perfectly handled in the prose that opens the novel, and it pulls one into the worry and wonder at having a great and terrible task suddenly thrust upon them. Fourteen year old Robey is sent from the farm with sparse supplies, a double-sided blue and gray jacket, the family horse, and a stern warning from his mother about survival, when to kill, and never to trust a stranger on any circumstance.
At this point you know Robey's journey is going to touch upon and break every one of his mother's admonitions.
A kind acquaintence swaps out Robey's exhuasted horse for a the loan of a magnificent coal black Hanoverian stallion. This is where the novel differs greatly from other similar tales featuring title animal characters. The black horse is not anthromorphized, or otherwise blessed with such precious importance that it steals the novel from Robey. The horse becomes more spirit guide then protagonist as he shelters the tender boy, carries him tirelessly, and comforts him. When the horse is stolen from Robey after the boy disobeys his mother's first warning about strangers, the coal black horse becomes something to fight for.
Yes, Robey is on a journey to find his father, but before he can, he must first suffer and struggle on a quest to reclaim his horse. The horse becomes a symbol for the strength and manhood Robey must first attain before he's truly prepared to face the quest for his father.
The novel's imagery becomes stark, brutal, apocalyptic even, as Robey's journey takes him. Even at its quiet moments there's a pervading eerie beauty both in prose and in proceedings. The sight of a horse's skeleton intertwined with foliage, the meeting of a man dressed as a woman, tending geese, and so covered in lice his flesh shimmers, are so fantastic as to make one think of fairy tale or Greek myth.
The Gettysburg battlefield serves as the centerpiece for the novel, a meeting place of fate and enemies. Robey meets once compassionate townspeople who have become mercenary, defends dying wounded men from being eaten alive by wild pigs, and witnesses the eternal hunger of those who loot the dead. There is no glittering heroism here, there is no romance in war.
The scenes are increasingly ghoulish, graphic violence, vivid descriptions of the rotting dead, and a brutal rape are witnessed by Robey. The rape and the quest for the horse both become important side plots in shaping Robey's future, just as surely as the search for his father does.
This book is swiftly read, and held my heart from beginning to end. Robey's journey changes him steadily and it is with something akin to sisterly pride I felt in watching this boy grow to a man in his journey through hell on Earth over a time spanning less than a year.
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