By Allen Barra
For more than 140 years, the name of Andersonville, the infamous prisoner-of-war camp in western Georgia, has evoked all the horror of the Civil War. The postwar trial of the prison's Confederate officials, as dramatized in the 1971 PBS movie "The Andersonville Trial," was a 19th Century version of "Judgment at Nuremberg."
"Escape From Andersonville" (St. Martin's, 352 pages, $25.95), the third novel by Oscar-winning actor Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan, might well be called "Escape and Return to Andersonville," as much of the story concerns Union Capt. Nathan Parker's efforts, after breaking out, to get back to Georgia and rescue his men—efforts thwarted as much by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman (for whom a handful of POWs is a low priority) as by Confederate forces.
This quest allows Hackman and Lenihan to tour the ravaged antebellum South and introduce colorful characters, including Israel Benjamin, a Jewish tavern owner from Tuscaloosa, Ala., with pro-Southern but anti-Confederate sentiments, and Marcel Lafarge, a former Confederate officer turned smuggler who becomes Parker's ally.
As a work of literature, "Escape From Andersonville" isn't "The Red Badge of Courage," but neither is it "Never Call Retreat," the 2007 Civil War novel by Newt Gingrich, William R. Forstchen and Albert S. Hanser that manages to be both pulpish and pompous. For that matter, it isn't MacKinlay Kantor's "Andersonville," the 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which is almost impossibly stilted and stuffy to modern readers.
"Escape" doesn't get at the big ideas of courage, patriotism, life and death, as Crane does, but it deals very well with smaller issues such as loyalty, trust and lost love. Hackman and Lenihan aren't exactly prose stylists, but for the most part their descriptions and dialogue are vivid, unpretentious and convincing. "The rust-colored Yazoo River," for instance, "that had wound its way from the north, moved slowly in the afternoon rain, dumping reddish earth into the Mississippi at Vicksburg."
The historical detail in "Escape From Andersonville" is sharp and focused without boasting of its own scholarship. In this passage, Lafarge invites the famished Parker to breakfast:
" 'Please bring the captain eggs, ham, toast with preserves, and a pot of coffee. Hurry now, my good man, our Northern friend is starved. Oh, by the way, would you like some skillygalee?' ... As the waiter left they could hear him mumbling, 'Skillygalee.' "
Skillygalee was soldier's fare of hardtack mashed with salt pork and cooked into mush to soften hard biscuits.
About halfway through, the novel meanders, indulging in unconvincing Dickensian plot devices.
On the other hand, there are undercurrents to hold the attention of smart readers, particularly the inspiration the hero draws from Henry David Thoreau: "He ... read excerpts from Thoreau's journals by the light of a campfire. This ritual helped him maintain composure and gave him some private ground where he could wrestle with his nightmares."
How refreshing to find the hero in an adventure novel invoking "Walden" rather than Sun Tzu's "Art of War."
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