DEVIL’S DREAM by Madison Smartt Bell

Book Quote:

“He don’t tell no lies,” Ben said, scraping shavings more urgently from the cedar. “He got a mean mouth, and don’t we all know it. Hot temper and a hard hand. I know it better’n most.” Ben touched the scar that flashed out of his temple. “But I ain’t never known him to lie to nobody, and neither have you.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (NOV 26, 2010)

This is a slave talking about his master, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a real character who became one of the most respected Confederate generals in the Civil War. At one point, Bedford breaks a pot over Ben’s head in rage at his insubordination, only to realize that there is a better way to gain his cooperation. So at considerable expense of time and treasure, he seeks out Ben’s wife, who had been sold away from him, and buys her back to be his companion. A former slave-trader who nonetheless treats his people with respect, this is only one of the contradictions that make Forrest so fascinating. Of minimal education himself, he nonetheless manages to win the heart of Mary Ann Montgomery, the genteel product of a finishing school, who tempers his roughness with grace, understanding, and a firm touch. Although still obviously in love with his wife, Bedford finds a different kind of passion with a slave woman, Catharine, with whom he will have several children. Two of his sons, one legitimate and the other not, will fight with him in the war, and the rivalry between them and their mixed pride and envy of their father forms one of the lesser strands in this absorbing and exciting book.

I should say that I am no Civil War buff, and have read very few other books about the conflict. This one is simply terrific, not because it casts light on events that I already know, but because it leads me into a world I hardly knew at all. I can think of only one other novel that comes so close to making me feel the detail and texture of the war, Michael Shaara’s magnificent The Killer Angels, his novelization of Gettysburg. But while Shaara takes the panoptic view, giving equal time to generals and soldiers on both sides, Bell filters everything through the eyes of Forrest and those closest to him. While Shaara focuses on a single set-piece battle, Bell deals as much with skirmishes, raids, and surprise attacks, a kind of fighting in woods and mountains that seems closer to guerilla tactics than the maneuvers of large armies. And while Shaara covers the action of only a few days, Bell ranges freely over a period of two decades, from 1845 to 1865.

Perhaps Bell’s most significant decision was not to tell the book chronologically. His forty shortish chapters jump around between the prewar period, the war itself, and the immediate aftermath. This may make it difficult to trace the course of Forrest’s career, but the outlines soon become clear, and Bell compensates with a meticulous chronological appendix. Each chapter centers around a specific anecdote, giving the book a series of immediate paybacks on the way to a powerful cumulative effect. I’m not sure I always understood the reason for the ordering of specific chapters, but the result is to give the book a psychological rather than historical unity. The connecting thread is the surprising mind of Nathan Bedford Forrest himself, with all his built-in contradictions. Bell also introduces — indeed opens with — a kind of chorus character, a free black from Haiti by way of New Orleans, whose name, Henri, is transformed into “Ornery” by the soldiers. Henri has the gift of second sight, able to foresee people’s deaths, and in some of the more visionary scenes he is actually dead himself. Oddly enough, this fantastic aspect enhances the immediacy of the rest. It threads through the book like the “Devil’s Dream” of the title, a fiddle tune that starts slow and works up faster and faster. Time revolves, dissolves, as in Bell’s epigraph from Albert Einstein: “The separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

The Devil, of course, is Forrest, which was how Sherman described him to Lincoln; his Dream has evaporated by the war’s end, although nothing dims the man’s fighting spirit. Bell’s other epigraph is by George Garrett: “Soldiers do not fight any better because of a good cause or a bad one.” There are plenty of episodes which can account for Forrest’s reviled reputation, not least a massacre of black and white soldiers at Fort Pillow, but Bell presents his protagonist with sympathy and understanding, and he wisely stops short of Forrest’s postwar role in founding the KKK, until he came to denounce it as a terrorist organization. What he gives us is a flawed but honest individual of irresistible personal magnetism, a rough-tongued leader who is impossible not to follow:

“Git round the left,” he shouted at the remnants of the Seventh. “Take the damnjobberknowlyankees in the rear there. Git on with ye — if ye’re feart to be shot ye best go forward for I’m well and goddam ready to shoot ye in the back if ye don’t.” Henri stared as the dapple gray reared up in the middle of the open field, under a hard rain of shrapnel and minié balls. There seemed no possibility that both horse and rider would not instantly be killed. But no. Forrest leaned forward, the horse’s front hooves regained the ground, and with a forward sweep of his blade he cried, “I’ll lead ye!”

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 14 readers
PUBLISHER: Vintage; Reprint edition (November 16, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Madison Smartt Bell
EXTRAS: Excerpt

More Civil War novels:

The Amalgamation Polka by Stephen Wright

The March by E. L. Doctorow


Haitian series:


November 26, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, US South, y Award Winning Author

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