Review of The Death of a Confederate Colonel

Pat CarrThe Death of a Confederate Colonel: Civil War Stories and a Novella by Pat Carr (University of Arkansas Press, 2007), 161 pages.

by Craig A. Warren

I belong to that rare breed of readers that prefers short fiction to novels, and so I was quite pleased to receive a review copy of Pat Carr’s new Civil War story collection, The Death of a Confederate Colonel: Civil War Stories and a Novella. The book contains eight self-contained short stories, followed by a novella of about ninety pages.

There is a great deal to admire about this work. Unlike fictions concerned with Civil War combat and famous soldiers, these stories take place on the impoverished and sometimes brutal southern home front. Carr’s female protagonists are a complex and clever lot, but (to her credit) not always sympathetic. Pettiness, disloyalty, pride, and greed define these women just as much as do duty, reverence, love, and fortitude. The result is that each character appears fully human, a refreshing departure from the two-dimensional southern ladies too often found in the pages of fiction. Not all conventions of Civil War fiction are absent, of course. These self-reliant characters find innovative ways to protect their families and fulfill their individual duties. But the women are also granted room to find love, to daydream, and to indulge their personal weaknesses.

In some stories, and especially in the novella Leaving Gilead, the war itself is a powerful presence, putting pressure on even the smallest decision and exchange of dialogue. In others, the war goes unmentioned entirely. Always present, however, is an attention to the complexities of gender and race. In one story, “The Mistress,” those concerns coalesce within an exploration of interracial sex – but in a manner that will defy the expectations of most readers. In another, the epistolary “The Return,” Carr creates a poignant study of masculinity and gender norms, giving us one woman’s views on a man literally taken apart by war.

Surprisingly, the concept of region – so crucial to most fiction about the war – plays a relatively small role in the collection. Certainly Carr has researched mid-nineteenth-century southern life, as reflected in her references to southern traditions, recipes, and legal codes. But most regional distinctions exist in the background. The concerns and emotions of the characters tend to transcend state borders, and with them “cause and country.” As for the war itself, Carr’s southerners often harbor little hatred for their Yankee counterparts. In fact, some of the most threatening characters in the book (like Faulkner’s “Major” Grumby) wear gray uniforms rather than blue. But the stories never condemn the southern people, nor paint the South in wholly unflattering colors. Rather, by focusing on universal themes – such as duty, freedom, and compassion – Carr’s fictions transform the story of the southern homefront into one about the spirit and durability of all American women.

At times these stories are reminiscent of “Golden Age” classics like Gone with the Wind (1936) and None Shall Look Back (1937), but particular tales have more in common with recent works such as Cold Mountain (1997). Yet by working in the short fiction form, Carr distinguishes her writing from that of others. In particular, the brevity of these works gives each an unmistakable power – sometimes enough to shock the reader, and always enough to prompt reflection. I will not go so far as David Madden, who in a back cover blurb compares Carr’s imagination to that of Ambrose Bierce. (Of all the stories, only “The Death of a Confederate Colonel” features the kind of ironic dilemma characteristic of Bierce’s stories.) But it is true that Carr’s fascination with language, and her imaginative settings, linger with the reader long after one puts the book down.

I recommend this collection to anyone interested in contemporary Civil War fiction, women’s literature, or gender studies. The book will speak to readers of diverse backgrounds and interests, and will enhance one’s understanding of life and death behind the lines of a great war.