I’m about 2/3 of the way through a remarkable (and remarkably entertaining) novel, The Sentinels of Andersonville by Tracy Groot.
It focuses on a small group of Confederates determined to help the Yankee prisoners in the ghastly Andersonville stockade, though others around them view their mercy and humanitarianism as treason.
One of the “Friends of Andersonville Prison” is a prison guard, Dance Pickett, an thoughtful and refined young man whose soul is being crushed by the horrors he’s forced to witness. Another is Emory Jones, a rebel soldier who has just delivered a Yankee to the prison. In doing so, he discovered that the Yankee just might be his best friend and that Andersonville is far worse than he could have imagined. Regretting having done his duty, he is now determined to get that prisoner, Lew Gann, back out — and to destroy the whole place if he can.
A reluctant participant is Dr. Stiles, who volunteers at the prison hospital and is sick with grief over what he’s forced to witness, but is fearful of putting himself and his family at greater risk. The ringleader of the ringleaders is his young adult daughter Violet. Violet is naive and patriotic in the cause of the South. She’s also bright, determined, and self-righteous enough to believe that you must fight evil. Just because you must. When she accidentally stumbles upon sights her father never wanted her to see, there is no stopping her.
In short, she’s a lot like a lot of us. All these people are. The evil of Andersonville (which was in some ways worse than most Nazi concentration camps, having not even a barrack or an outhouse, but just tens of thousands of sick, skeletal men milling in unimaginable filth and mired in criminally incompetent and corrupt bureaucracy) seems insurmountable. Most locals respond by ignoring or denying the horrors on their doorstep — after all, the Yankees are invaders responsible for killing their sons. The few who care feel powerless. Even once Violet spurs them to action, they still despair (except Emory, who never despairs even when things are bleakest), still are unsure what they can do.
Why do I call this novel remarkable? Several reasons.
First, Groot manages to wrap an engaging, charming, often quite amusing story (not to mention a little romance) around this grim material. The book is both heartbreaking and witty.
Second, the subject itself is, if not unprecedented, at least bold and unusual.
Third, while it’s a novel, it’s clearly based on solid research and a knowledge of both the terrible realities and the culture of the time and place.
Fourth, it views both sides in the war with understanding. (And I smile to notice that Groot, like a wise freedomista, generally avoids the erroneous term “Civil War.”)
Fifth, I guess I’d have to say, is the source. I picked this book up at random at the library, where some librarian had stood it up for display at the end of a shelf. I carried it home with low expectations — which sank even lower when I noticed it was published by Tyndale House — best known for bibles and the ludicrous, leaden, albeit lushly lucrative Left Behind series.
I avoid novels from Christian publishers. Not because I’m a bigot, but for the same reason I avoid typical freedomista novels — because I prefer good stories, well-written to heavy-handed lectures or barely disguised propaganda tracts.
This book is none of that. The religious views expressed by its characters are exactly what you’d expect from people of their time and place and are never, ever shoved gracelessly into some poor reader’s face. In fact, the book is subtle but clear on the fact that most people who call themselves Christian would, in fact, not only tolerate evil but condemn others who step up to do what’s really right — when what’s right means opposing established authority.
It’s simply a heck of a good story about ordinary people facing off against extraordinary, entrenched, seemingly immovable evil. Bureaucratic evil. Governmental evil. The evil of unnecessary disease, starvation, foulness, suffering, and indignity. And it’s loaded with statements like this (I’m leaving out the name of the character these words apply to, ’cause that would be a spoiler):
[Name] will hang in two days because he wanted to help others. The law is for lawbreakers — he is no lawbreaker, not by the spirit of the law, of which we do not seem to be the custodians any longer. There is only the letter of the law, and it kills. And I am tired, tired of it all.
Though I don’t know how the story comes out yet, I can already say I highly recommend this book.
I also notice that Tyndale has another recent title, The Auschwitz Escape by Paul C. Rosenberg, which I hope may be along the same lines. I’ve just put that in my library queue, also.
If both books turn out to be so subtle in their religion and so overt in their freedomista thinking, I’m going to begin wondering what Tyndale is up to. So far, with The Sentinels of Andersonville, what they’re up to is excellent.