Review by John for Of Blood and Brothers: A Novel of the Civil War by E. Michael Helms
John’s quick take: An interesting story about the American Civil War and brothers who ended up fighting on different sides.
John’s description: It’s 1927 and Calvin Hogue, a young reporter, is sent to cover a family reunion in the Florida panhandle. What makes the reunion different is that the two old Malburn brothers who will be there fought on different sides in the American Civil War. Hogue is nervous and not sure what to expect, but he is at least given a warm welcome by younger members of the Malburn family.
He is introduced to Daniel, the older of the two brothers, who at first seems like a rather irascible old man. But eventually, assisted by a glass or two of moonshine, the old man starts to tell Calvin his story, which then spreads over a few meetings between the two men. In particular Daniel tells all about his involvement as a Confederate soldier in the great battle of Chickamauga in Northern Georgia, when the Confederate army inflicted one of the worst defeats of the war on the Union army. The battle was savage and bloody, and Daniel Malburn spares no details.
Eventually Calvin is also introduced to Elijah, Daniel’s brother. The young Elijah did not sign up for the army alongside his older brother, but instead stayed at home to help run the family farm. After helping out at a salt works (salt was vital to the war effort) Elijah is captured by Union soldiers, and reluctantly chooses to join up as a Union scout rather than be sent to a prisoner of war camp. He figures that somehow he will be able to escape, but is horrified when his unit is sent to raid the countryside around where his family and friends live.
Calvin is totally drawn into the complex wartime stories of the two old men, which he turns into weekly episodes for the local newspaper. At the same time he becomes ever closer with the Malburn family.
John’s thoughts: This is an interesting and enjoyable account of the Civil War, when many families were torn apart and found themselves on different sides. In this case one of the brothers found himself on the opposing side almost by accident, but is nonetheless drawn into actions which will damage the lives of those he has grown up with.
Helms certainly does a good job of depicting the chaos and confusion of the Civil War – both on and off the battlefield. He pulls no punches in describing the gory details of battle, but also effectively describes the anxieties and actions of those not of the front line.
I think that Helms is at his best when writing about the battle scenes, and his account of Chickamauga were quite compelling. I really liked the way that he talked about the soldiers’ fears and emotions. I wasn’t quite as impressed with the story of Calvin Hogue, which is used as a framework for the Civil War storyline. Some of this is a little on the thin side – for example, it was never obvious to me why the two old brothers would suddenly open up to Hogue and tell him things they had never told anyone else.
However, I would recommend this to anyone interested in historical fiction generally or the American the Civil War specifically. A couple of words of caution – firstly, this is the first part of a two-book story so do not expect major story elements to come to a conclusion in this read; secondly, the tales of the two old Southern men are written the way that they speak, so that you have to cope with many odd phrases and colloquialisms. I’m sure that many people will find the speaking/writing style a bonus. For me it did occasionally get in the way just a bit.
Overall I’d rate this book 3.5 stars.
282 pages | Koehler Books | September 1, 2013