Today is my birthday. I didn’t get to do much today (all of my b-day plans are taking place tomorrow), but I did get some fabulous gifts! There was a definite theme to this year’s bounty, and I bet you can’t guess what it was…JAMIE FRASER!! And gnomes! And the Civil War! I love it all!!
In addition to some yummy peanut butter brownie cookies, Bridget gave me Great Battles of the Civil War, a Fraser postcard, a Fraser bookmark (oh, how I adore bookmarks), a gnome, a mushroom, and two Scottish newsletters.
Hubs gave me this coffee mug (I specifically requested it) and the Easter Lily.
And Carla sent me this wonderful Clan Fraser tea set and cookies (or should I say biscuits?), including some that are imported from Scotland! I was shocked when I opened this package, the china is so dainty and delicate and beautiful. They no longer make this pattern, so I feel very special. The detail is amazing…
All of these gifts combined were a happy ending to a not-so-happy week…I somehow managed to sprain my wrist at work and get stung by a wasp on two separate occasions in a matter of days. One of those times involved the wasp crawling up the inside of my pant leg and actually getting as high as my thigh before I realized there was a creature in my pants, at which time I started to freak out and Mr. Wasp started to sting me. (As a side note, I have a history of insects crawling up my pan tleg…last year at work, a spider with babies on it’s back decided to crawl into my pants and, well, it was not pretty…) The second wasp attack occurred while I was innocently walking out my front door on my way to work. It got me on my forearm, which proceeded to swell to an almost 5 inch diameter…
Tomorrow we’re hitting up an old timey Prohibition-era speakeasy, as well as going to see “The Conspirator.” James McAvoy in a Civil War uniform…how will I contain myself?!! Thank you so much to Bridget, Carla and hubs (and to everyone else who gave me non-Scottish presents as well!) for the thoughtful gifts and for making me feel loved on my birthday :) You guys are awesome!
This is very random, but I have a cluster of black tulips in my garden and they are just too pretty not to share.
And then we went shopping for a few birthday gifts, and I totally lucked out when I found this gnome READING A BOOK! Again, too good not to share :)
I’m not sure if any of you share my passion for all things Civil War, but I stumbled upon this major find today and though it was worthy of sharing. The National Archive and Ancestry.com are teaming up in honor of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War to offer the public access to millions of their Civil War records FOR FREE!!! From what I gather, this has never happened before, and it only lasts for a week (April 7 – April 14), so please take advantage of this offer and learn about your Civil War ancestors!
Here’s the link: http://www.ancestry.com/civilwar150
I have a new favorite book. And as is typical of my favorites, it must come with a disclaimer for those of you who don’t like to be pushed out of your comfort zone: it is heartbreaking, beautiful, and tragic.
The main story of this novel only spans the 48 hour period before and after the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee. Bushrod Carter is a college educated man and seasoned veteran of the Civil War at age 26; he’s been actively fighting for the Confederacy since the war began in 1861. His two childhood best friends, Jack Bishop and Virgil C. Johnson, have been with him for the past 3 years, and all have managed to walk out of each battle unharmed. Through a series of flashbacks throughout the book, we see the history of the three men, what they were like as children, certain events that shaped their outlooks, and mostly, how deeply they care about and love each other as brothers.
The strain of the prolonged fighting has taken its toll on most of the men by the time they approach Franklin and there seems to be a blanketing sense of hopelessness about the troops. Bushrod has adopted a coping mechanism in which he retreats into his “Other” self whenever he goes into battle or when faced with the horrible aftermath. He refers to the dead as the “Departed” and treats them reverently, always asking for permission to take their clothing or accoutrements and then thanking them for it. The men are exhausted and Bushrod is particularly struggling because each time he falls asleep (even when he’s standing upright) he is plagued with dreams in which Jack and Virgil C. are dead.
The foreshadowing is heavy (but well done) and it is clear from the very beginning that there will not be a happy ending. And if you know anything about the Civil War, you know that the Confederates were basically massacred during the brief (but extremely bloody) battle at Franklin. The men obviously know that they don’t stand a chance, but line up and prepare to march into battle nonetheless. Bushrod despises killing and is trembling so severely that he cannot load his musket. Jack is at his side and loads it for him.
Meanwhile, John McGavock has been informed that the Confederacy will be using his home, Carnton Plantation, as a field hospital. He and his wife, Carrie McGavock, stoically accept their fate and begin readying themselves and the house for the wounded. (Carrie McGavock is the central character in Robert Hicks’ Widow of the South, but she plays a secondary role in this novel. I am a fan of Widow, so it was interesting for me to see her from a different perspective.) Carrie’s young cousin, Anna Hereford, is also present on one of her yearly visits and in an unexpected twist of fate, finds herself thrust into the job of field nurse. After the battle, a wounded Bushrod is carried into Carnton and left at the foot of the stairs, and it is here that he meets Anna. They are from very different backgrounds and Anna blatantly states that under different circumstances, she would have never given him the time of day. As it stands, however, at this precise moment, they are perfectly attuned, each making the other whole during the most trying time of their lives.
Everything I’ve said so far is really just the beginning, the relationship that develops between Bushrod and Anna is the heart of the story, but there is so much more happening simultaneously. The antagonist of the novel is a conscripted soldier named Simon Rope who had a run-in with Bushrod and his friends several weeks prior and who means to take revenge on them all. Also, Anna has been instructed to watch over and protect the McGavock children, Hattie and Winder, who are locked in the only room of the house that is not serving as a hospital, while also helping take care of the soldiers. I won’t go into any further detail regarding those storylines so as not to give too much away.
I absolutely love this book. I am amazed that such a small and concise story can have such a strong emotional impact. Bahr captures the irony and contradiction of the war perfectly, and his writing is downright poetry. The battle itself is not described, but the grounds, atmosphere, and attitudes of those involved are vividly brought to life. I have visited the Carnton Plantation, so I could clearly envision the surgeon’s table and the bloodstained floors, the hallway clogged with dead and dying men, the beautiful porch with the sky blue ceiling on which dead famous generals were laid out.
Even though I was dying to find out what happened next, I found myself going back and re-reading paragraphs because they were just so beautiful. The grisly scenes of death and destruction are punctuated by tender moments of unfettered love and compassion and agonizingly poignant writing. There is a lot of symbolism and many references to animals, which I found particularly moving. There is a scene involving a wasp that is trapped in the McGavock house amongst the wounded men that broke my heart. Another one of my favorite paragraphs that I read over and over is this one between Bushrod and Anna:
She turned then, and all at once they were standing so close that she had to tilt up her face to look at him. “Give me your hand,” she said. “Please.” So he put out his right hand, palm up, and Anna settled her own in it like a bird alighting. Bushrod thought of when he was a boy and sometimes a chimney swift would come in through the hearth; when that happened, he would always be the one to catch it, he loved to wrap his hand around it and feel the softness and the little hammer of the swift beating heart. Outside he would open his hand; for an instant the bird would lie blinking in his palm, then flicker away so fast he could never find it in the sky. He half-expected Anna’s hand to do the same, but it lay still, and he closed his own around it.
I feel like I’m doing a terrible job expressing how moving this novel is. The story is gripping, intense, sad, funny, and thought-provoking all at once. The hook doesn’t fully sink in until the battle begins (about 75 pages in), but once it does you will not be able to put it down. Bushrod is a very interesting character and I savored every single second I had with him. The novel is divided into several parts and at the beginning of each part, Bahr includes actual lines from Bushrod’s Commonplace Book, a letter to his mother, and even faculty minutes from the time he and Jack were suspended from the University of Mississippi in 1859 for drunken, unruly behavior; all of which makes him that much more realistic. It is very obvious that the author loved and respected these characters and I think he did a wonderful job of paying homage to the sacrifice that they all made.
The Black Flower is a heavy, bittersweet and heartbreaking read. Even though I knew how it was going to end, I still felt like I had been punched in the gut when the time came. I cried and was left with a hollow feeling for a few days afterwards, but it was completely worth it. My favorite novels are the ones that evoke sincere emotion; this one has major emotional impact and the awe-inspiring, heartfelt writing is icing on the cake. Even if you don’t typically like Civil War novels, I think you will be blown away by this book. I borrowed it from the library, but will be purchasing my own copy because I want it on hand for whenever I get the urge to go back to certain passages, not to mention numerous re-reads in the future. Bahr has two other Civil War novels, The Year of Jubilo and The Judas Field, which I look forward to reading.
This weekend I finally got to hang out with my dear friend Crystal, at which time we painted peacocks and drank beer. It was fantastic.
I think I’ll hang it in my kitchen. Most of my friends and family refer to my taste in home decor as “unique,” “unusual,” or “eccentric,” and I doubt this will do anything to change that ;)