Sitting in front of a bonfire is mesmerizing because of fire’s beauty and destructive power in equal measuring crackling before you. Even the way the smoke unfurls off the tips of the flames into the night sky to hover above the stars is a beauty of a kind. In that same way, Robert Olmstead’s 2007 novel, Coal Black Horse, is a beautiful, haunting meditation on the ravages of war, and the way it, too, unfurls under the night stars. And just as those who sit at the bonfire will walk away smelling of smoke, inexorably, those affected by war carry home its machinations, even if they don’t come home at all.
Olmstead’s novel is premised on the classic journey tale plot structure: Robey, a 14-year-old boy living in Virginia in 1863 is told by his mother to go retrieve their father from the battlefield and bring him back home. We are not given any motivation other than that Thomas Jackson has died, which I have to admit, I didn’t make the connection until Googling that that’s Stonewall Jackson, since I’m more familiar with him by his moniker. “Stonewall” Jackson died just under two months before the Battle of Gettysburg, which left 50,000 dead, and was the turning point for the Union Army. This is the environment Robey comes down from their mountain home as a mere boy is walking into, or rather, as the namesake of the novel indicates, rides into on a horse gifted him by a neighbor, a Hanoverian, a German horse. Speaking of Google, Google the images of these majestic, beautiful creatures.
Along the way, the boy is decidedly naïve, not just about what war entails and encompasses, but about slavery and human bondage, Native Americans, and the dangers posed by even seemingly mild interactions with others along the way, like a “little man” with a gaggle of geese, lice teeming across his skin, and pretending to be a woman. That little man would go on to shoot Robey in the head and steal his horse after feeding him and tempting him with whiskey (Robey didn’t take the whiskey, but he still was bested). Fortunately for Robey, it was a grazing wound, which means it was a lesson he could learn from rather than die of.
One of the roughest scenes of the novel, which is a carryover aspect of war — in that once war begins, all horrors seem possible — but is also a unique horror all its own, is when Robey is trying to catch some sleep and food in an abandoned house, and a blind woman, a preacher, and a girl of 15 enter the house. At night, while Robey is still hiding out and observing the trio, the preacher violently rapes (it seems redundant to say “violently raped” because rape is by definition violent, but I want to emphasize that Olmstead’s description of the rape is a violent, physical struggle between the two, where the preacher punches her multiple times into compliance) the 15 year old. Robey does nothing, and he is cognizant of his doing nothing. It is brutal, but here, Robey is still a boy, a boy thrust into hell without a breathing apparatus.
A journey novel also wouldn’t be complete without Olmstead’s gorgeous writing about the landscape of America, and Robey’s reflections on how vast the American countryside is. I felt like I was there with Robey, riding along with his horse through the ruins of an America besieged by war, but beautiful all the same. Because, after all, war leaves nothing, including the landscape, unscathed. You felt that while reading Olmstead’s novel.
Sometimes in a novel, nontraditional forces become characters the actual human (or animal) characters interact with, like a house, a setting, a place, whatever the case, and in Olmstead’s novel, war itself feels like a distinct character. It feels almost sentient in the way it moves through the pages, hovers over and colors everything, and the world Robey inhabits. War is nonsensical and barbaric and feeds man’s worst impulses to scavenge, pillage, maim, and kill, and for what, really? Righteousness? Pride? Greed? Those are the questions Robey begins to ask, as he gets closer to the Battle of Gettysburg. When he does get near an encampment of Union soldiers, they think him a Confederate spy at first because he has a coat his mother gave him that can be turned to gray or blue depending on who he encounters. The Major, however, takes a liking to him and believes Robey’s story that he’s seeking his father. One of the most harrowing scenes in the novel, and in any novel I’ve read, follows where the encampment is raided by Confederate artillery men, who were using the French-developed Minié rifle with its hollow-based Minié ball, or bullet to snipe the Union men. The way Olmstead describes the devastation that weapon wrought on the men who were mowed down by it is haunting and descriptive as to befitting any horror novel. It reminded me of the unrelenting, realistic Saving Private Ryan beach scene. Men were getting their faces cleaved off, limbs severed from their bodies, and chests caved in with holes, and watching as their blood gurgled out. And then if that wasn’t bad enough, the mortally wounded were left lying around to be scavenged of their boots and other goods in their possession, or surgeons would go around with a bonesaw and chloroform to hack off the wounded limbs. Mind you, it isn’t just the limbs of man. In gruesome detail, Olmstead also talks about the dozens of horses killed as collateral in the war (and that isn’t always a fair characterization, as sometimes the horses would be intentionally targeted), their hind legs broken or shot off, and even Robey at one point has to put down a wounded horse.
The metaphor of the coal black horse, the namesake of the book, I think, is that neither Robey nor this horse chose war. They were thrust into it, Robey by his mother, and the horse by Robey. And in many ways, the vast majority of the dead and dying from the war, and those otherwise scarred, they didn’t “choose” it, either. Yet, once in it, like Robey, they would make choices that would forever change them (maybe I’m loosing the thread of the metaphor because the horses still aren’t making choices!). Or, perhaps, the horse, being sturdy and strong, represents Robey’s humanity to cling to, and reclaim since the horse is taken from him early on in the book.
After the Battle has occurred and the bodies litter the landscape, I can’t think of a better descriptive image of how awful war is than Olmstead’s description of two gravediggers who get frustrated over the empty water jug while burying the dead, so they start fighting and fall into an exhausted heap … on the dead bodies. Or the ironic scene of a cemetery and its tombstones being pockmarked with the signs of war.
Nonetheless, Robey survives the onslaught from the Confederates, bears witness to it as best he can, and then coming into the aftermath of the Battle, finds that his dad is one of the wounded, like him earlier, also having suffered a head wound. His dad survives a little bit longer before dying. I think in a more sentimental novel, the father would have survived for a reunification with the mother and for Robey to have succeeded. But Olmstead’s novel isn’t sentimental. Case in point, along the way back home, Robey is again hiding out in a house when two brother scavengers come inside, and this time, Robey, who has become a man through bearing witness to war, proactively steps up and kills one of the scavengers, and then escapes with the surviving brother’s horse.
Later, Robey finds his coal black horse (and the little man unhorsed by hanging, which I wasn’t sure if that was an accident or intentional, but it didn’t allow for revenge for Robey there), and happens upon the prior trio, with the girl who was raped. Together, Robey and the girl escape the man, and head back home. Robey seems harder and colder at this point compared to the beginning of the novel when he was still a wide-eyed boy. But he’s not without his affection. He makes love to her, more with that unsureness that comes with being a newly minted man, though, than a man molded by war. Turns out, the girl was impregnated by the preacher.
They get back home, and see that the war, like a great ocean, has lapped up to the shore of their home. Where Robey was gifted the horse, the home is burned down, as is the blacksmith’s operation. His mother’s home is still there, though, as is she. With the final pages, war is unrelenting, as it brings forth the two men Robey “wronged” (in their eyes): the brother scavenger, and the raping preacher. Robey is aware they would seek vengeance and stayed vigilant. He kills both, and knows he will kill again. Such is the way of things now, of the way he is.
The girl, traumatized by everything and pained by her impending birth, intends to kill herself and her two boys (twins!) in a nearby body of water. Robey saves all three. She’s upset by this, but life goes on as the pages turn blank.
Olmstead does away with any sort of romanticizing of war. It is ugly and brutal and bloody and deadly. “There were enough limbs and organs, heads and hands, ribs and feet to stitch together body after body and were only in need of thread and needle and a celestial seamstress,” Robey reflects upon the Battle of Gettysburg. That is the reality of war. That reality cements the final change in Robey, not just from becoming a man, but becoming a man who doubts God’s love and mercy, as he reasons, “He decided from that day forever after that there must live a heartless God to let such despair be visited on the earth, or as his father said, a God too tired and no longer capable of doing the work required of him.”
Or in another way Olmstead puts it, “In war, even the dead will kill you,” which I think is a fitting, haunting way of expressing that the ghosts of what war made of you will stay with you until your own dying breath.
As it happens, I started reading this book right when I started a new audiobook about Gettysburg. I haven’t gotten to the actual battle yet, but in this fictional telling, I’m already deeply disturbed. War is hell. It must always be avoided when at all possible. Unless, unfortunately, one side is agitating to create an empire built upon chattel slavery.