When Will This Cruel War Be Over
by Barry Denenberg
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
When Will This Cruel War Be Over (The Civil War) / 0-590-22862-5
Quite frankly, this book is terrible and fails on many levels. Historically, it is useless, because it subverts real and important history in favor of overt racism. A single glaring example: on page 29 of the diary, the narrator describes the "weekly classes" that her mother gives to their slave children or, as she terms, "her little scholars". In a book set in 1864, in Virginia, in the midst of the Civil War, the plantation family is giving weekly lessons to their slave children to read and write! This is terrible history - teaching reading and writing to a slave was a dire offense in the South, thanks to the Slave Codes and Anti-Literacy laws, most of which originated in Virginia a century before this book is set! Teaching a single slave to be your personal bookkeeper was a serious offense; holding public lessons for all your slave children would result in the entire family being burnt out of town for being abolitionists or worse! Historically, any master intent on giving slaves lessons would have done so in the direst secrecy, in the dead of night, and only to adults (little children might let slip the secret). Such a master would sleep with a loaded gun by the bed, conscious that the slightest slip of tongue could result in a riot, in hangings, in the death and destruction of everything they owned.
Why does the author thumb his nose at history and insert this ludicrous detail, despite the incredible breach of accuracy? Two reasons, really. First, he can continue to paint the Southern plantation owners as paternalistic participants in the "fair and equitable" system of slavery. It's horrifying to see that the "slavery was good for black people because their masters took care of them" argument is still alive and well here. Second, our author can flaunt his racism by underscoring his idea that slaves were simple minded idiots who actually *needed* the structures of slavery in order to survive - the narrator notes with matronly frustration that the slave children simply do not *want* to learn to read and write and are stupid little barbaric animals, uninterested in the larger world around them.
Lest you think I'm being uncharitable, halfway through the book I started turning down the page corner every time a slave did something stupid, dim-witted, animalistic, or sub-human. I had to stop this practice, however, because I realized I was turning down every single page. It's not just that the narrator is "realistically racist", the slave actions that the author imagines for his fictional Emma to record are caricatures of people - his slaves are stupid, dim animals who are too foolish to appreciate freedom, literacy, or the simple privilege of having a family. By contrast, the fictional plantation owners are sweet and gentle masters who deserve lionization - although we just have to believe this when it is presented as fact, for we are given no examples of praiseworthy actions to back this up. He lavishes praise on them for not beating the slaves too often unless they are particularly stubborn or stupid, and for not breaking up families unless "necessary".
As much as the author cannot capture a realistic black slave in his writing, he cannot capture a realistic young woman. "Emma" is boring and tiresome. She simply does not do anything in this novel except write letters to a boy she has met only once, expound on the virtues of marriage to her diary, and sit by her ailing mother. We're well into the Civil War, with full-fledged shortages and starvation - you'd think we might see Emma in the fields, desperately trying to eke out a carrot or two from the barren fields, or we might see her at the market, haggling for a bit of bacon to feed to her ill mother, but these interesting scenes of shortages and famine don't seem to occur to the author. There is marriage to write about!
Emma's fictional "Cousin Rachel" (Emma is too stupid to realize that when you only know one Rachel, you don't have to keep writing "Cousin Rachel" every time) takes up at least a third of the book with her arguments against marriage, and Emma is obsessed with pointing out that Rachel is wrong. At first, this seems potentially intriguing - Has Rachel been jilted? Wronged? Has a secret and youthful lover died in an earlier battle? Has her father shamelessly abandoned her mother? - It isn't until the epilogue that it is revealed that, no, Rachel was just insane. That's why she professed relatively sensible concerns about 19th century marriage: insanity. I honestly cannot tell if the author is a misogynist or just boring and unimaginative.
I would not recommend this novel to anyone. Apart from the pro-slavery racism and paternalistic attitudes, apart from the anti-feminism and slavishly romantic main character, apart from the painful boredom of a young woman who never does anything with her life except mope around waiting for a boy she met once to ride up and rescue her, the entire affair was so boring from beginning to end that even "Emma" seems to realize how deathly dull her life is - many pages of her diary have a mere single sentence as an entry. In closing, I will leave you with these riveting examples of the evocative writing in this diary, with each entry produced in its entirety:
Wednesday, January 13, 1864 - I never realized how happy I was until this war besieged our land.
Tuesday, February 16, 1864 - There are many reports of smallpox in the area.
Tuesday, February 23, 1864 - Mother remained in bed all day.
Wednesday, March 23, 1864 - Mother is still feeling poorly.
Monday, April 18, 1864 - Mother died today.
Tuesday, May 10, 1864 - We received word of the death of Lieutenant Walker.
Tuesday, May 24, 1864 - Cousin Rachel and I talked in my room again this evening.
Saturday, July 9, 1864 - My watch is broken.
Sunday, July 24, 1864 - The weather is quite warm today.
Saturday, December 3, 1864 - We wait in breathless anticipation for news.
Sunday, December 11, 1864 - How long O Lord, how long?
Thursday, December 22, 1864 - I am growing thin and feeling weak. I can no longer even weep.
~ Ana Mardoll
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