Books: Then and Now

Category: Then

Review: Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

By: Richard E. Gower

Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead is a coming of age story set during the American Civil War just after the death of General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in 1863. An artless teen, Robey Childs, innocent in years and awareness, leaves the safe haven of his home at the behest of his mother who has had a premonition, and sets out to find his father and bring him back from the war. It is a story that for some, might recount the hint of a familiar time now past but well-remembered. For the young protagonist however, this journey is much more than that.

For many people who have experienced it, the passage to adulthood was a pleasurable phase of life, a special time of transition; an awakening to the promises of tomorrow; those seemingly unlimited possibilities that lay ahead after crossing youth’s restrictive rubicon. But Coal Black Horse takes coming of age to a different locale, a place where some readers might be uncomfortable.  And that is one of the strengths of this book.

As a writer, Robert Olmstead is a tactician of economy and precision and there is a purity to the language he uses that elevates the story up above mere spectacle. Amid his vivid descriptions of the ugliness of war, he manages to capture the indomitable spirit and resiliency of youth exactly and that gives the book an underlying buoyancy. You glide through the pages as you would over water in a newly-varnished canoe.

Today’s accelerated and sanitized lifescape may make it difficult to conceive what day to day living must have been like for the majority of people in the 1860s. Electricity had barely been properly harnessed and the only form of speedy distance communication was the telegraph, in its infancy as well and only accessible to a privileged few. Young Robey Childs set out then by himself on a sojourn that would be unimaginable today for almost anyone in the western world regardless of their age, so some readers may need to stretch their minds to fashion that past milieu. But Robert Olmstead is able to carry us back there effortlessly with his authentic dialogue and powerful narrative imagery.

Consider a mother’s sage advice to her fourteen-year old son, as he begins his journey back then.

‘ “Secure pistols,” she said, “and do this as soon as you can. Gain several and keep them loaded at all times. If you must shoot someone, shoot for the wide of their body, and when one pistol is empty throw it away and gain the pistol of the man you have shot. If you think someone is going to shoot you, then trust that they are going to shoot you and you are to shoot them first.” ’

Robey’s introduction to the coal black horse foreshadows the influence of the big Hanovarian [sic] stallion, over what lies ahead for the boy.

‘ He looked to the teamster and then to the smith down the road at his forge and gestured that Robey should follow him. Behind the mercantile in the lean-to-stable, a horse could be heard thrumming through its nose and stamping the wall. Morphew entered the shadowed light of the lean-to and when he returned he was leading the horse forward. It was coal black, stood sixteen hands, and it was clear to see that the animal suffered no lack of self-possession.’

As Robey rides away on the coal black horse, its import within the story is furthered by a conversation between Morphew, the merchant who granted the horse to the boy, and Morphew’s blacksmith neighbor.

‘ “ It’s a horse that leaves quite an impression,” Morphew said.’

‘ “It is the kind of a horse that can get you killed.” ’

‘ “I thought about that.” ’

‘ “And what did you think when you thought about that?” ’

‘ “ I thought a lot of things. I thought about his mother. I thought about how he’s his father’s son and he is a-goin’ either way he can. I thought about how getting’ in trouble ain’t hard, but getting out of it is.” ’

‘ “ I thought you’d think how where he’s going the horse might be smarter than him.” ’

‘ “I thought that too.” ’

In spite of the overall emotional uplift and transcendency that this book can provide for readers, they are not spared descriptions of the ruinous effects of war on humanity. Robey helps a woman bury a file of dead men who had been killed in a battle at Gettysburg.

‘ Their various causes of death were most apparent as the minié ball was a terrible, crippling, smashing invasion of the body, shattering and splitting bones like green twigs and extra-vasating blood in a volume of tissue about the path of its ferocious intention. The killing wounds were to the head, neck, chest and abdomen. When the minié ball struck it flattened and tumbled, fissuring and comminuting bony structures. Shards of bone and broken teeth often flew from its path, wounding one body with the bones and teeth of another. ’

Up until now in this space, I’ve tried to alternate between reviewing a recently issued book (Now) and one that came out in the past (Then), the cut-off between them being about three years back from present day. I was due to write about a current book but made the mistake of opening the cover of Coal Black Horse – first published in 2007 and winner of the Heartland Award for Fiction that year – and I was lost to the story and the beauty of the language. It is a book of consequence and a gripping read. Highly recommended.   REG

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