Note: The novelist Robert
Olmstead spoke to the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable at its
September 2011 meeting. In attendance that night, at the
invitation of CCWRT member William Vodrey, was Cleveland Plain
Dealer Book Editor, Karen Long. This piece was published in
the Plain Dealer the following Sunday.
Roughly 60 history buffs submitted to
the allure of fiction Wednesday evening, and it made for a
Over a dinner of chicken, red
potatoes and broccoli, the 479th meeting of the Cleveland Civil War
Roundtable assembled at Judson Manor to hear novelist
He teaches at Ohio Wesleyan
University and is justly celebrated for his slender, evocative novel
"Coal Black Horse." It tells of a 14-year-old boy, Robey Childs,
sent by his mother to bring his father home from the field of
Olmstead was slated to speak on
"Experiencing the Civil War." When he reached the lectern, he stood
mute and still for a long minute. Then, without so much as clearing
his throat, the professor read aloud from the first chapter of Coal Black Horse.
Robey's mother has had a
premonition, and she tells her boy he must find the man before July.
The book opens on May 10, 1863. The battle of Gettysburg began July
1 -- a date long memorized by everyone gathered for the roundtable.
Olmstead read slowly:
He was not to give up his
horse under any circumstances whatsoever and if he was confronted
by any man, he was to say he was a courier and he was to say it
fast and be in a hurry and otherwise stay hush and learn what he
needed to know by listening, as he was doing right now. She then
told him that there was a terror that men bring to the earth, to
its water and air and to its soil, and he would meet these men on
his journey and that his father was one of these men, and then she
paused and studied a minute, and then she told him, without
judgment, that someday he too might become one of these men.
The room was rapt. I had read these
lines after the novel published in 2007, but the experience of
hearing them, in the cadence of their creator, offered more meaning,
and more intimacy.
A Roundtable member asked where
Robey began his quest, if Olmstead had a particular town in mind, or
if he had left it purposely obscure. In early drafts, Olmstead said,
he had supplied all such specificity.
"I spent five years writing 'Coal
Black Horse,' and five years unwriting it," he said. "I began
pulling back on that stuff, and the manuscript would lift a little
bit, and I'd pull back more, and it would lift a little bit more."
This would have struck a chord
with Antoine de Saint-Exup ry, the French aviator who wrote
"The Little Prince." He observed that "a designer knows he has
achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when
there is nothing left to take away."
In The Red Badge of Courage,
Stephen Crane also left much murky about his youthful private, Henry
Too often, those who love reading
history can be dismissive of the merits of fiction. Congratulations
to the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable for its sophistication, and
its memorable night.