By Karen R. Long
Cleveland Plain Dealer Book Editor
Originally Published: Monday, September 19, 2011
Copyright © 2010 Cleveland Live, Inc.
Editor’s 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 delightful night. 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 Robert Olmstead.
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 battle.
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-Exupéry, 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 Fleming.
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.
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