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A Civil War tale that breaks conventions

The Baltimore Sun

Coal Black Horse

By Robert Olmstead

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill / 218 pages / $23.95

Coal Black Horse, Robert Olmstead's magisterial sixth book, is as sensate as poetry and forbidding as any squall, steeped in detail but bound by few storytelling conventions. I wondered, as I read it, if it might be classified as myth. I wondered if readers of The Red Badge of Courage and March and The March and Cold Mountain will make room for another novel of a certain era that is rife with the shattering lessons of war. Fervently, I hope they will, for Coal Black Horse is a remarkable creation.

It is May 1863 when Olmstead's story opens. Fourteen-year-old Robey Childs has been growing inches, sometimes overnight, helping his mother care for the cattle farm while his father serves at war. On the day the story begins, he is being sent out on a journey. "Go and find your father," his mother says, having had a premonition, "and bring him back to his home."

The boy is to travel south, then east, then north. He is to wear the jacket his mother has sewn for him, the buttons of which are made of chicken bones, the fabric of which has been dyed gray on one side, blue on the other. He is to trust no one and to remember his mother's warning: "If you think someone is going to shoot you, then trust they are going to shoot you and you are to shoot them first."

Robey leaves the next day, mounted on the back of an ordinary horse. He will be given custody, in short order, of a most magnificent young stallion, a horse so fine that it turns heads and invites envy and upholds such constancy and care that in time Robey "learned to fall asleep on the back of the coal black horse as it seemed to share the same mind with him in the direction it maintained. From then on, when he grew tired, he merely pulled a blanket over his head and dropped his chin upon his rocking breast and slept and the horse would sleep too, walking on in its repose, covering a length of four miles every hour, its hooves invisible for the dust and gauze of heat, or veiled by lightning on the black path as the flashes directed their way in the electric, combusting, and starless night."

I quote the passage above at length not just to broadcast the sound of the book (the long, held moments; the well-placed adjectives; the sinewy relationship between atmosphere and time) but to pause for a moment over this most heroic horse that intuits direction, keeps impeccable watch and gathers unto itself a steadfastness and strength from sources unknown. The horse is a literary, even romantic, construct, and yet I allowed myself to be carried forward on its back. One has two choices, I think, in writing fiction like this - to err on the side of plausibility or on the side of meaning. Olmstead writes toward meaning on every page.

Robey will lose the horse for a spell as he travels. He will be shot at and scarred. He will bear witness to a hideous rape and find himself incapable of interceding on behalf of the young victim. Finally Robey will make it north, to a blood-soaked battlefield, where limbs are strewn and men are moaning and scavengers are hunting for letters home, for artifacts, for gold that can be torn from the cavernous mouths of the men cut down at Gettysburg. Robey will find his way to his father, and the coal black horse, since repossessed, will stand as sentry through days of sweltering heat and maggots.

"This was not the raving mad," Robey's father tells him of the bloodshed all around. "This was not for love or greed or ignorance. These are the well-bred and the highly educated. This is humanity. This is mankind, son."

A boy when his journey begins, Robey is a man by the time he and the horse make it home, to the cattle-grazing land and a mother whose hair has gone white with waiting. He is a man who has seen more than he can bear remembering, who has committed acts that to himself seem savage, heinous, who is, for better or worse, no longer afraid of dying. He is a man in whom countless changes have been wrought, a man for whom the future lies in coils.

Beth Kephart's sixth book, "Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River," is due out in May. A novel for young adults, "Undercover," is due out in September. She wrote this review for the Chicago Tribune.

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