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Tennessee Titan

Madison Smartt Bell brings the Civil War to your doorstep through the enigmatic Southern general Nathan Forrest

Okan Arabacioglu

By John Barry | Posted 12/2/2009

Devil's Dream's frontispiece includes a photograph of the small-eyed, dark-bearded Civil War general Nathan Forrest. He looks like he's daring you to tell him that his side lost the war. Prepare to flip back to that single photograph over and over again as you read through this fast-moving, hallucinatory quilt of one of the Civil War's more fascinating legends.

Baltimore-based Madison Smartt Bell--at least in his historical fiction--thrives on contradictions. Nathan Bedford Forrest was, to put it mildly, an enigma. A Tennessee slave trader by profession, he joined the Confederacy at 40 as a private. Without any military experience, he proved himself a born military tactician. Within a year of his enlistment, he had risen through the ranks to brigadier general. In battles that often involved harassing, bluffing, and dividing larger Union armies, he became a master at horse-driven warfare.

Forrest goes down in Civil War history as a master of the aggressive, mobile-military strategy that proved effective against Union forces in the early years of the war. It didn't do much for his horses, though: According to various accounts, he had about 30 of them shot out from under him during the course of the war. The book opens with a surreal scene of Forrest plunging into battle, with Federal horsemen turning tail. He's waving his double-edged sword while using his other hand to plug the artery of his wounded mount. Meanwhile, the battle cry "eerie as the shrieking of the predawn owl" is rising from the throats of his charging followers. Significantly, the book begins and ends with that cry:

And you hear it through the person of Henri, a French-speaking black man of Haitian origins who, by chance, has found himself fighting with the gray side in the war. That odd alliance will be explained, but you'll have to read the book.

For those who are used to reading about the Civil War as Greek tragedy, or epic moral struggle, Devil's Dream (Pantheon) is history as a jolt of rebel yell. Bell's own Tennessee roots are clearly planted in a story that focuses on the battleground, and less on the Big Picture. Then again, after his three-volume historical novelization of the Haitian slave rebellion, and his nonfiction volume on slave-turned-revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture, Bell isn't going after another sweeping epic. He focuses on the unvarnished conflicts--sexual, moral, and tactical--at the center of racial divisions.

So get used to the n-word. Bell sticks to his subject, and frankly, the world seen through the eyes of Forrest and his followers may not appeal to us Yanks. You hear some of the old refrains from Forrest. "And Yankees ain't no better, no matter what they think. . . . Why, they got white chirren worken in them mills up there, no better'n slaves and mebbe worse when they ain't got no master charged to feed'm." He repeatedly articulates the idea that slaves aren't any better off free than when they're in bondage. And even his slave Ben--who follows him into battle--stands up for him: "Ain't nobody love a slave-trader. Even they own people don't. But I seen him give his word to a black man same as he would to a white and I ain't never seen him break it."

For all that, Forrest wasn't exactly a hero of the civil rights movement. In the book's most cringe-inducing subplot, Bell shows Forrest claiming privileges of ownership while starting a tentative romance with Catharine, his female slave. In 1864, his troops stormed Fort Pillow, Tenn., and slaughtered hundreds of black prisoners. Other elements of Forrest's life are left outside the scope of this novel. When the South surrendered, Forrest became a leader of the Ku Klux Klan through the early 1870s. (Whether he was actually a Grand Wizard or not is subject to some dispute.) Less in dispute is the fact that Forrest was one of those who fought hard against Reconstruction. That was a battle that the South eventually won, and it laid the foundations for Jim Crow.

Forrest's view of the world does run into a lot of opposition in Bell's account. Most of the Yanks--actually, all of them--are busy skedaddling their scallywag asses out of there whenever he surfaces. The closest Devil's come to an opposing viewpoint is through the eyes of Henri, a Haitian whose mistrust of whites extends to either side of the Civil War. The fact that he's from Haiti and related to L'Ouverture, the inciter of the bloody slave rebellion there, injects a surreal voodoo element into the mix, as he slips in and out of the land of the dead.

Forrest is a fascinating historical figure, but this novel doesn't add a lot to the legend. Devil's Dream is less interesting as a character study than it is as a study of the landscape of the Civil War. Nathan Forrest, for better or for worse, stands in Tennessee at the fiercest dividing lines in the conflict, where Northern and Southern blacks, whites, and armies all met. Sparkling with jeweled descriptive moments, this volume absorbs Forrest and those around him into the crossroads of a violent, dangerous moment where history seems to compress, the dead awaken, and conflicts slip into a time zone that defies chronology.

It might be too much information, but this novel ends where it begins. We find ourselves in the middle of a ferocious battle in September 1863, as the rebel yell spreads across the charging Southern line. The conceit, familiar to readers of Garcia-Marquez, works. The scene--and the photograph of the man at the center--means more at the end than it did at the beginning. Through Forrest's deep-set, unblinking eyes, we're being taken on a tour through a battleground that, today, is still smoldering with the wreckage of an endless war.

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