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Mon February 22, 2010
"The Confederate General Rides North" by Amanda C. Gable
Amanda C. Gable is a native of Marietta, Georgia, and after a number of years of higher education and university teaching and administration has turned her hand to fiction. "The Confederate General Rides North" is her first novel. The year of this story is 1968, and it matters. That spring, as many of us remember, was the season of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., both occurring, it seemed, very soon after the assassination of JFK in November of 1963.
By Don Noble
Amanda C. Gable is a native of Marietta, Georgia, and after a number of years of higher education and university teaching and administration has turned her hand to fiction.
"The Confederate General Rides North" is her first novel.
The year of this story is 1968, and it matters. That spring, as many of us remember, was the season of the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., both occurring, it seemed, very soon after the assassination of JFK in November of 1963.
There was a general feeling of chaos, hopelessness, even despair, of everything coming apart. The center was definitely not holding.
Thing are not holding together in the McConnell home in Marietta, Georgia, either, and Katherine McConnell, eleven, senses it. Mother and Daddy fight a lot. Daddy has started his own construction company and is gone a lot of the time. There is yelling and a lot of dish-breaking.
Mother is obviously unhappy, but the reader looks in vain for the obvious reasons. There is in fact no other woman; Daddy is not a gambler, a drunk or abusive to Mother or Kat.
In some ways, they are the victims of their times. Mother is a Yankee and understandably upset by the assassinations and by the southern resistance to the civil rights movement. Daddy is a good man, not a bigot, but resents "outsiders" coming to the South. They fight over an upcoming civil war reenactment. She hates it for celebrating the Confederacy and war in general. He believes it honors history and the courage of the Confederate soldiers, some of whom were his ancestors.
One morning Mother wakes Kat and says "Wake up baby?We're going on an adventure." Although Katherine is dismayed that they do not pause to say good-bye to Daddy or to Gramma and Poppa, they get into the car, rent a U-Haul trailer and head north. Mother announces that they are going to take a long road trip, buy antiques and go into the antiques business. She does not tell Kat that they are leaving Daddy and the antiques store will be in Maine.
The novel is the story of that road trip. They do in fact buy antiques; Mother is good at that.
To please Kat, a devoted Civil War buff who can tell you which Confederate general "sucked lemons, who had heart trouble, who was reluctant to send his troops into fire, and who used men like so much cannon fodder," their journey takes them through a number of battlefields, Kennesaw Mountain to Appomattox to Manassas to Antietam and finally to Gettysburg.
(Mother is especially willing to visit Appomattox. She tells Kat: "You need to see where the South had to admit they were licked. It'll do you good.")
Although Kat can sense it only as a child would, this is also the story of her mother's emotional disintegration, and the novel's main strength lies in the modulations of Mother's decline and in Kat's responses. On page one we're told: "Mother's moods can change fast. I have to watch for that." The reader realizes, faster than Kat does, that mother is bipolar and spinning more and more out of control. Her behavior becomes erratic, then downright dangerous when they reach Gettysburg.
Besides her overt actions--impatience, unwarranted emotional outbursts, an occasional refusal to leave their motel room--there are other hints as well. Mother is a brilliant and obsessive artist and Kat tells us at times her paintings "give me the creeps ?it seems the shapes are flying out at you?angry, out-of-control beasts that are nothing but blobs of color." Kat must cope, and must make decisions too difficult for an eleven-year-old.
Throughout the story, Kat maintains the fantasy that she is herself a female Civil War general moving from battle to battle. This is a mild form of escapism, but it shouldn't be seen as neurotic behavior, just the exercise of a child's excellent imagination. However, as the stresses increase, the fantasies become more frequent and they are always apropos. She has promised Mother not to call or write home and reveal where they are, but the situation gets dire. What to do? As the Confederate general she muses "loyalty is one of the most important qualities in an officer.?Her commander is making plans that she believes will have devastating consequences?yet, obedience and loyalty are equal to bravery." Katherine slowly realizes, however, that absolute loyalty may not finally be the best course.
This novel may have an eleven-year-old heroine, but it is not for young adult readers. The issues considered here are all grown up.
This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."