That might not sound like the Civil War to you. Yet it's terribly, wonderfully close to some of the disorientation of being a soldier among the guns and death and miracles. And at the same time, it captures the dark underside to what it means to live in New England, or any other region haunted by history and sacrifice. This is the mystical universe that Vermont author Howard Frank Mosher portrays so successfully in his 2010 novel, WALKING TO GATLINBURG.
It's 1864, a deadly year of the War Between the States -- or the War of the Rebellion, depending on how you see what's taking place, as men in gray and blue uniforms (or the rags of what once were uniforms) continue to shoot and knife each other, burn each other's homes and towns, blasat the beds of railroads, drag cannons across mudded landscapes. Women support and seduce them. Hope of peace is a poor thin haunt. And Morgan Kinnerson, a Vermont teenager who agreed to help a fugitive slave named Jesse toward the Canada border, needs his older brother desperately: Guilt for leaving the fugitive to be captured or killed overwhelms Morgan, and the killers are after him now, too.
But Morgan's life is more complex and many-layered than even guilt, fear, and danger. His home is marked with a runic charcter, Thurisaz, that means "gateway" -- gateway for the Underground Railroad's path into Canada, across the Vermont border, but also to parts of life that terrify Morgan, from women to politics to war. Morgan's cousin Dolt insists that the Civil War is about slavery, and immediately adds, "So don't you never stop looking for Pilgrim!" Why the course of the war depends on Morgan finding his missing brother, long gone into the war as a soldier, is the mystery that the rest of the book repeatedly kisses but never quite tells. In Morgan's terms:
He too believed that he must keep looking for Pilgrim, if only because the looking might sustain his faith that his brother was still alive. As to the war, well, he did not disagree that slavery, the greatest evil mankind had ever devised, was the ultimate issue, but it had long seemed to him that the conflict had acquired a malignant life of its own. Pilgrim had slipped away from it. Morgan wanted no part of it. His sole concern was to stay alive long enough to locate his missing brother.Switch the brothers' names and the book snaps into focus, for it's Morgan who is the pilgrim here, and as in Pilgrim's Progress, he has temptations to avoid, women chasing him, and his own Slough of Despond to survive.
Five killers have escaped a New York prison -- and it turns out they are hunting for a talisman that the fugitive slave, Jesse, was carrying. In his haste, Morgan has taken Jesse's stone with him, fascinated by the runes on it that include the one marking his own home mountain. Those killers are devilish, as evil as slavery itself; they robe themselves with fragments of hymns and religion, and arrive in deathly arrangements:
Four crows appeared over the ridgetop, silhouetted dark and spectral against the red sky. No, by Caesar, not crows -- tall black plumes bobbing like sooty featherdusters on the heads of four coal black horses cresting the hill in the cut through the woods and pulling a long black hearse escorted by four riders in blue uniforms.Horses of the Apocalypse? Messengers from Hell? "The green-goggled driver looked like Death at a ball."
Morgan, soon accompanied by an adolescent girl named Birdcall, travels as a grim-jawed innocent in all this. The cruelties he witnesses -- even so small a detail as young boys throwing bullfrogs and worms, alive, into a copper washtub of boiling water -- speak to him repeatedly of the hunt he's on, the hunters following him, and the evil of the land as shown by the "peculiar institution" of slavery. " "To Morgan Kinnerson, spinning on down the current in the green dusk with Birdcall, mankind was of all species the most peculiar, and the cruelest." Sexuality threatens to join this map of evil, as Morgan witnesses a vile punishment being performed:
But what sort of union drove fugitives back into slavery again? What sort of war laid waste to whole states, then allowed such evils as he had seen [to] reign unchecked? Why hadn't someone arrested King George and his goup of madmen? Was there no one left ot rise up and denounce the savage coupling of a bull and a woman in the very capital of a state long renowned for its human enlightenment? Fire along was insufficient retribution for such demons.Possessed by a certainty that his missing brother Pilgrim has deserted not only the Union forces but the vile war itself, Morgan pursues the trail ever deeper into the South. Repeatedly the emblems of the Underground Railroad appear along this path -- the runes ("protogermanic" says my reference check, but perhaps meant to be simply Norse) crop up wherever Morgan travels, and each one addresses some mystical opportunity. Nor do the most religious of the people along this path embrace such mystical growth, in general. One asks Morgan whether he has read the Bible, and is shocked that he thinks about his readings and only takes with him what seems useful. He confirms this choice: "I don't stop thinking when I open the Bible."
More temptations surround Morgan as his journey appears to reach a crest of discovery -- temptations of bread and of women, of sleep and of release.
The unclothed girl appeared in the moonlight and again took his hand in her cold grip. When she saw that he feared her, she wet her lips and said, "Just hold me, Morgan. I need to be warm again." But he know that he must not give in to his desire to lie with her or eat the bread or fall asleep.Whether temptations will doom him or the killers slay him is uncertain nearly to the end, and Morgan's journey echoes that of the country: Once brothers have taken arms against each other for years of bloodshed, even "freeing the slaves" may not be a Happy Ending up ahead.
Mosher's direction in this book follows from the eerie double lives of his earlier work, especially in Disappearances. But it's clear that his years of traveling the country mostly alone in a rattling aging car, to promote his novels in one small town or crowded city after another, have pressed a deeper and more intense kind of haunting into him, and in this book, it spills out. This is no peaceful journey to "look for America" on a long-distance bus with a pocket full of guitar picks; it is instead a course through the gates of Hell, and across the River Styx, to where demons roam at will and goodness is frail, pale in the darkness.
If something buried within you rang in recognition as you read the mystical works of hermits and martyrs, or the fierce novels of Dan Brown or the sly wickedness of William Faulkner, then WALKING TO GATLINBURG will make you leap up in recognition, and in hope. I can't count the number of times I stopped during reading the book to say to my husband, "This is really strange. This is so strange. I know what this is doing and -- it's surpassingly strange."
Strange and good. In the sense that each of us is standing on the shoulders of giants, Mosher here stands on the work he himself has done before, and reaches a new country of possibility. What a read!