There are stories too gripping to require embroidery in the telling and crimes too heinous to be forgotten or forgiven.
Terrell T. Garren’s historical novel, The Secret of War (The Reprint Company, Publishers, 2004), partakes of both. Cover notes on the volume explicitly critique Cold Mountain for its allegedly “distorted history,” and promise that this tale of Civil War times in Western North Carolina is “faithful to the facts.”
Garren’s book appears to be historically accurate in general — and whether it is correct in detail must be left to scholars of the period. (The author, a native of Asheville, is dealing with his own family’s oral history –the main events take place near Fletcher and Hendersonville — fleshed out with 15 years of research. A reader is inclined to trust that such investigation has been fairly conducted and honestly reported.)
The story line follows a first love ripped asunder by the brutality of conflict. The young suitor (and the author’s great-grandfather), Joseph Youngblood, volunteered for the Confederate army early in the war and spent the next four years struggling to survive through battle, imprisonment, escape, desertion, re-imprisonment and the twisted loyalties and dangers of a lawless time. His betrothed, Delia Russell, is the author’s great-grandmother — a determined woman who kept her family homestead together while society and economy unraveled. Russell barely survived a brutal multiple rape at the hands of local outlaw mountaineers hired as scouts for the Union army, and never fully recovered.
It is this last fact that is the titular “Secret.” Garren’s urgent message is that women have always and everywhere borne this brunt of war, often in silence. Victims are ashamed or afraid to speak out, he explains, for fear of direct retribution or the more subtle repercussion of a ruined reputation. While the author is unquestionably accurate, it seems something of a stretch to call this a secret. Those unaware that rape is a common crime of invading armies can only be painfully naive or willfully ignorant. Witness Abu Ghraib.
Having invited comparison with Cold Mountain, it is only fair to note that Garren is not Charles Frazier. The writing is wooden and the editing is slipshod — someone apparently substituted a computer spell-check for close reading. Standard rules of quotation are routinely misapplied, forcing one to backtrack to ferret out a speaker’s identity. To judge by other books on its list, the publisher’s usual genre runs to genealogy and Civil War documents. Perhaps The Reprint Company has no editors with experience in popular fiction.
While the events as portrayed may be historically accurate, the telling is weakened by one-dimensional stereotypes, usually bolstering Confederate myth. Every Southern belle is beautiful and politically uninformed. Former slaves are all true to the Confederacy — joining the army or loyally sticking by their former masters. Union officers are (with one exception) monsters or simply inept. Confederate leaders are statesmen. The really bad guys come off as cartoon hillbillies, literally inbred, with bad teeth, mock reverence and corn likker. A few attempts at “balance” are made, but they feel pasted in. It would be a far more satisfying text written as a straight-ahead history, and, in fact, the author’s tendency to tell instead of show comprises its unrelenting flaw as a novel.
Where Frazier’s tale is the sort that makes a reader slow up to keep the magic from ending too soon, this volume urges you forward, hoping to get the facts and be done with it. It seems all too evident that Garren hasn’t discovered the secret of fiction. This is a compelling story, badly told.
Asheville Community Theatre (35 E. Walnut St.) will host a book signing and talk with Terrell T. Garren on Thursday, Feb. 17, from 5-6:30 p.m. Free.