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American Civil War Dreamscape

Madison Smartt Bell takes on Nathan Forrest.

Book Cover Tennessee born writer Madison Smartt Bell was anointed early, making one of those (silly) Granta list of young authors to watch. Despite the perils of early celebrity or recognition, Bell has published about a baker’s dozen of novels, the most compelling of which I find to be his Haitian Revolutionary trilogy: All Soul’s Rising, Master of the Crossroads, and The Stone That The Builder Refused, which among other things featured the vivid and plausible character François-Dominique Toussaint L’ouverture, the amazing leader of that uprising.

Devil’s Dream (Pantheon), Bell’s newest novel, portrays the controversial fellow Tennessean, Civil War general Nathan Bedford Forrest. A fascinating character both condemned and celebrated, Forrest was a rags-to-riches millionaire who enlisted in the Confederate Army as private and was quickly promoted to general as his talents, enormous intelligence, and fearlessness were recognized. He is remembered for the massacre at Fort Pillow and for his affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, reportedly serving as its first Grand Wizard.

Bell raises the stakes of his narrative by having it narrated in the third person, from the perspective of Henri, a Creole who joins Forrest’s rangers in the summer of 1861. That Henri was killed at the battle of Chickamauga some two years later unhinges a straight-ahead chronology with the surreal overtones of a dreamscape. And Bell makes it work.
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