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Taking a Stand: a review of Amanda C. Gable’s The Confederate General Rides North by Barbara Knott
America’s Civil War is not only a historical fact of huge import to our nation, it is also a powerful metaphor of warring intrapsychic forces that make or break individual lives. I know the metaphor well, having lived with parents who carried on a domestic civil war in all of the fourteen sites we lived in while I was trying to grow up. An emotionally unreliable father brought out all-too-predictable battle responses from my mother, and I couldn’t find an alliance with either of them. The psychotherapist who mentored me during training to become a therapist was not surprised when I reported a dream of being a Civil War soldier who had his legs shot out from under him. Knowing what I had suffered during the “civil war” of my parents, she made the assessment that with warring parents, a child often does not have a leg to stand on, and she carried on that conversation with me while I was discovering my psychological footing.
So it is no wonder that I am attracted to Amanda C. Gable’s The Confederate General Rides North, a novel in which Katherine McConnell, an eleven-year-old girl from Marietta, Georgia, immerses herself in our nation’s Civil War history during a trip from one site to another on her way north with her mother, whose disturbing moods intrude on the girl’s fantasies. We the readers follow her adventure as if in parallel worlds with her, the one world on a car trip with her mother and the other on various battlefields in her mind. She imagines herself a Confederate general, identifying sometimes with Robert E. Lee and sometimes with other well-known officers like Jeb Stuart. She often is herself-as-general, and the drama of her fantasies overlaps in interesting ways with the drama going on in the traveling car that has a trailer hitched to it for carrying antiques they buy on their trip.
Her mother’s plan is to open an antiques store in Maine, the place she came from and where she apparently intends to go back and stay, away from the husband she has left in Marietta, and his family whom she dislikes intensely, with the exception of his sister Laura who has proved a friend to Katherine. Aunt Laura is an important touchstone for sanity to the young girl, who becomes unsettled as she watches her mother’s stability decline.
The time is 1968, and we are made aware of that mainly through music on the radio and occasional references to period television shows, to Vietnam, and to civil rights happenings. These references are lightly sketched to anchor the setting of a story that is focused on the interior life of the main character.
The story is told from Katherine’s first-person point of view. The opening line announces the plot: “Get up, baby,” Mother says. “We’re going on an adventure.” The reader quickly learns that the two of them are leaving in the early morning dark after Daddy goes to work, that Mother is subject to mood shifts from “touchy” yesterday to “cheerful” this morning (after a fight with Daddy the night before), that when she gets a notion, “she’ll change whatever she’s doing, right then and there.” We learn that Margaret McConnell sometimes wakes her daughter up in the middle of the night to go to Dunkin Donuts where the mother sketches ideas for her paintings while she drinks her coffee. Yes, she is an artist, as is Katherine, whose paintbrush tapping on the jelly jar has been known to get on her mother’s nerves. That was yesterday. Today they are packing for a trip, not saying goodbye to anyone. Her mother wraps her in that secret as if it is part of the adventure.
Early pages establish, through short flashbacks, that her mother is a Yankee who has never been comfortable in the South or with her father’s Southern family, that her mother and father have more tensions than tenderness in their relationship, that her mother is gifted in art and that she runs the emotional gamut from manic creativity to deep depression, that Katherine loves both parents but has an easier relationship with her father, that she herself is a sturdy person who has intuitively found in the nation’s Civil War a fantasy to help her remain sane in the midst of emotional family storms.
From time to time, in moments of calm, her daddy has talked to her about her wild artist mother, like the time he was repairing a windowpane he had broken out the evening before by hurling a can of frozen orange juice in exasperation at his wife’s running off with Katherine to a lodge in Pisgah Mountain National Forest when she just had to get away, for a week, to see the beautiful leaves, to hike and ride horseback and read beside the stone fireplace, spending money he didn’t have. His way of describing Margaret’s moods is to say that she “shifts gears a lot.”
Katherine no doubt feels her morning’s awakening by her mother on the day of their departure as a shifting of gears. Fifty-six pages along, Kat can still say, “She knows what she is doing. In a few days she’ll probably call Daddy to tell him where we are and when we’ll be home. He won’t be so mad then and will be able to listen to her plan. I’m her partner in this, and everything is going to work out.” For an eleven-year-old to partner with an emotionally disturbed parent is awkward, discordant, and risky in the extreme.
War is discordant and risky as well, so the italicized passages that show Kat’s fantasies of war also show us her way of imaginatively working the material of her actual life so that her troubles seem manageable, as the war seemed manageable to its generals, at least some of the time. Her fears escalate and by the time they reach Gettysburg, we see how her concentration on history is helping her to cope with the present. She is thinking of Aunt Laura’s book on the battle of Gettysburg (162):
I love its foldout map and the photographs of the battlefield from a few years after the war. I trace the red and blue lines and arrows depicting the movement of troops. Here A. P. Hill, there Hood, across the page Ewell, a tiny square each for Lee’s and Meade’s headquarters. A star for where Reynolds was killed—slash marks for Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge. Visualizing the images from the glossy pages settles me down. Everything written and drawn there has already happened; its order will never change and I don’t have to guess at how things will turn out.
Kat is an only child, older than her years, precocious, a reader. She is already mature enough to say “I want a library.” She is named after her grandmother Katherine, her mother’s mother. We learn later how important this grandmother is in shaping young Katherine’s destiny. Kat is like her own mother in features but not in style. She is gifted artistically (her mother more so) and athletically. She swims well at first under her mother’s tutelage and afterwards under her watchful, demanding eye. Anyone who has grown up with an exceptionally pretty or gifted mother may recall that unconditional love is absent where competition is present, and that its absence sets up a yearning that never goes away.
We are given many ways of seeing Kat’s relationship to her mother. She sometimes delays her response to her mother’s searching because “I want to look at her trying to find me. In that moment, she is thinking of me and only me.” We watch her looking at her mother (117): Mother holds herself differently than the people moving past her: her back is straighter, her figure more slender, her head held higher. She never scuffs her feet or moves clumsily; she glides, her long, thin legs cutting the air. We can feel very clearly that she is comparing her mother to herself. And then: Even though I can’t see her eyes, I can sense them. Large and dark brown, almost black, they always appear angry even if she is laughing and having a good time, but when she is really angry, I think I can see a red edge glowing behind the dark brown. What is astonishing in these descriptions is that the child can see how remarkable her mother is and can feel her own limitations by comparison, but she is not devastated by living in the shadow of this glamorous person.
When my mother walks into a room, people notice her, men and women. They want to be near enough to smell her perfume. They want to hear her hilarious imitations of high-society Atlanta women. People want to be in the circle around her when she throws back her head to laugh, her mouth open, her glinting white teeth showing. I know what people sense—that Mother has energy to spare, a vitality that everyone wants a piece of. Too often I see her when her energy is gone, when she has nothing to give. But I still like to think of her as I see her now, mesmerizing, with a magic that can be mine.
Kat’s main challenge, bedsides survival, may be to avoid losing herself to the force of the ailing mother or the deceased grandmother. Just how much danger she is in is foreshadowed but not revealed until the end of the book when we learn what Kat means when she says, Some people have a sickness that makes them so sad that it is hard to be in the world.
Katherine’s mother Margaret’s sickness was shaped by her grandmother Katherine’s life and death, and Margaret’s need to implicate her daughter in the sad story meets with fierce resistance, an intensification of fantasy in Kat (260): The general knows that to be successful in battle you have to act as if you aren’t afraid, even though you are, desperately afraid …. followed by a breakthrough of common-sense reality in which Kat tells herself, I don’t think I can help Mother anymore. I don’t think I’m strong enough. I may fail her like Jeb Stuart failed Lee at Gettysburg (261).
In a powerful, painful scene, Kat lies locked in her mother’s tight arms, wanting not to be there, wanting her mother to stop telling the awful story, and when it is over, and you think relief has arrived, her mother takes her (and the reader) yet another step toward a full view of her madness by singing, “Hush, little Baby, don’t say a word, Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird” verse by verse while Kat squirms in her mother’s arms and struggles in her mind against this incredibly wrong attempt to give her a lullaby on top of the saddest story ever told to the girl. After realizing how desperately ill her mother is, she detaches herself and leaves the motel in a rush of soul-searching.
Katherine is deeply embedded in the standpoint of soul: on the battlefields, the ground of the soul is drenched in blood that nourishes fantasies that rise like ghosts from the land. She makes her way to Seminary Ridge and its stone wall across the field, growing sweaty and thirsty like the soldiers did, warming herself to the enactment she is about to undertake in order to learn what she must do. She stops to touch the cool bronze of a cannon. There she becomes not a general but a foot soldier, and she throws herself into battle alongside a multitude, though she is in fact moving across the field alone. Mother made me swear I wouldn’t let anyone know where we are and I don’t want to be disloyal. Helping her is up to me, but all I want to do is run away. In her mind they take the wall, and she falls on her knees with these thoughts (269): None of it can be changed. Brave Confederates fought and died for the wrong cause. Honorable soldiers killed one another by the hundreds of thousands. A war that should have ended at Gettysburg dragged on for two more years. She rises and turns back toward town and the motel. All the truth needs to be told now.
The soul is brave but not heroic. Katherine gives ground and does what is most needed. She makes a phone call to the one person she knows she can count on.
Amanda Gable maintains an edgy balance between Kat McConnell’s apprehension and her assurance, keeping the reader guessing whether the girl will weather the emotional climate in the car and in the motel rooms even as the confederate generals in her imagination weather the war. What the author sets out to do here is risky. To present a story from the first person point of view about an emotionally volatile situation requires that the narrator be trustworthy, else the reader may not wish to go with her through the tensions. I never for a moment didn’t want to go with Katherine.
The final pages of Amanda Gable’s The Confederate General Rides North is one of the finest pieces of dramatic writing about interiority that I know of. It is exciting, tense, richly detailed, and thoroughly satisfying. What I trusted about Katherine McConnell as narrator held the course. And now I feel that I could trust Amanda Gable to tell story after story. I would listen, and I hope she’ll bring them on.
Gable, Amanda C. The Confederate General Rides North. New York: Scribner, 2009.
Copyright ©2010 Barbara Knott · All Rights Reserved
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