2020 is a difficult year for reading novels about the American Civil War. The old comfortable myths, the familiar interpretations of history, have developed serious fractures. The romance of the Confederacy has given way to the dismantling of Confederate war memorials. The election of an African-American President represented both the power of cultural change and the vehement, even violent opposition to it.
Andre Norton published Ride Proud, Rebel! in 1961, in the midst of the Civil Rights era. Her science fiction novels took care to depict a future that was not all or even mostly white, and she tried hard to write Black and Native American characters with respect and understanding. And yet she chose this material for a foray into historical fiction.
She imprinted in youth on Gone With the Wind, which is evident in her first novel (though published second), Ralestone Luck. But a generation had passed and her work had moved on to very different genres and philosophies. In fact, I wonder if this is another early trunk novel, written before she did serious thinking about race and culture in the United States.
Whatever motivated it, here it is. Fiery young Kentuckian Drew Rennie has defied his wealthy, Union-sympathizing family and joined the Army of the Confederacy. We meet him late in the war, still in his teens but already a hardened veteran. Despite the determined optimism of his fellow soldiers, the end is already in sight.
Drew’s rebellion is personal. His parents, he’s been raised to believe, are both dead. His father was a Texan, his mother a daughter of the house. When she became pregnant and her husband was apparently killed in war against Mexico, her father stormed down to Texas and hauled her back home. There she died after delivering her son.
Drew has a lifelong hate-hate relationship with his grandfather. He gets along, more or less, with the rest of the family, though all of them are on the other side and one is married to a Union officer. As the story progresses, he becomes the very unwilling protector of his young cousin Boyd, who wants to be a rebel just like Drew. Boyd runs away to join the Confederates; much of the action, in and around historical battles and skirmishes, consists of Drew trying to track down his wayward cousin and force him to go home.
That much of the plot is very 1961. Teen rebellion was a huge industry. The short life and tragic death of James Dean was its epitome, and his most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause, encapsulated the mood of the time.
Maybe that’s why she chose to write about the Civil War. It offers a dramatic backdrop for teen rebellion, with careful historical research and a battle-by-battle depiction of the final throes of the Confederacy in Kentucky and Tennessee. There’s a family secret and a mystery to solve, and there’s a direct lead-in to a sequel, in which Drew Goes West, Young Man to find out the truth about his father.
Drew is kind of a cipher, despite his personal conflicts, but some of the other characters are as lively as Norton characters get, including Boyd (though he’s also quite annoying) and the dialect-drawlin’ Texan, Anse Kirby. A Native American scout plays a strong role, and now and then a female character gets a decent number of lines.
Much of the action devolves into summary and synopsis of numbingly similar battle scenes. As often as characters get shot in the arm or shoulder, I feel as if I’m watching a Hollywood historical epic. Gallop gallop gallop pow! pow! off flies the soldier, winged in mid-flight. Drew gets knocked out and misses key battles, which have to be summarized after the fact. And in true series-regular fashion, he never suffers any serious damage, though the same can’t be said of the humans or equines around him.
The equines are amazingly well and accurately drawn. I wouldn’t have expected it of Norton, based on the way she generally portrays them, but this is a surprisingly horse-centric book. Drew’s family breeds horses, and he loves and understands them. He’s in the cavalry; when we meet him, he’s trying to round up horses for the army, and he’s riding a true horseman’s mount, a tough, not at all physically attractive, smart and savvy gelding named Shawnee. Shawnee, without a speaking part, still manages to be one of the novel’s more memorable characters, as, later on, does the mighty Spanish mule, Hannibal. Even the rank stud is well portrayed, and we get to see what Drew has to do in order to manage him on the trail and in camp.
Drew really is a convincing horse (and mule) man. He doesn’t fall for flash and pretty, he understands the true blessing of a smooth-gaited mount for spending long hours in the saddle, and we see exactly what those hours do to both the rider and the mount. When I was driven to skim the battle scenes—they are sincerely not my cuppa—I slowed down to enjoy the equine portions. She got them right.
And yet the novel, to me, felt hollow at the core. We are never told what the Cause is that Drew is fighting for. As far as anything in the story indicates, it’s a nebulous conflict, brother versus brother, fighting over land and resources. Drew is on the Confederate side because his grandfather is Union. What those two things really mean, we’re never actually told.
Drew’s world is overwhelmingly white, with a couple of token Native Americans (and some reflexive racism in that direction from the Texan, going on about the cruel, savage Comanche whose torture techniques come in handy for terrorizing bandits and Union soldiers). Once in a great while, we see a Black person. There’s a Mammy figure back home on the plantation, there’s a servant or two. Near the end we see an actual Black regiment fighting for the Union. We’re never told what that means. Or what the war is about. The words slave and slavery just… aren’t a factor.
It’s a massive erasure, and it’s compounded by the heroic portrayal of Nathan Bedford Forrest, under whom Drew eventually (and wholeheartedly) serves. Forrest here is heavily sanitized, turned into a hero-general. We hear nothing about his history, his slave trading and his atrocious treatment of his human merchandise. There’s no hint that his Cause might just happen to be unjust. Even while Drew tries to disabuse Boyd of the notion that war is all jingling spurs and flashing sabers, the war he fights is just as steeped in myth and denial, though it’s notably grittier.
I want to know how the story ends, despite the problems with the first half, so I’ll be reading Rebel Spurs next. As it happens, the first chapter takes place right down the road from where I sit, in a town I know quite well. That should be interesting.
Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, was published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published as ebooks from Book View Café and Canelo Press. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.