Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
The Wolf Pit
The Wolf Pit
Marly Youmans
Harvest Books, 2003
342 pp., 14.00

Buy Now

Tim Stafford

Still Writing the Civil War

Do we know this country too well?

Marly Youmans writes novels like a poet, leaping through her story using images as stepping stones. She has a wonderful way with words, rendering wolves that "trickle away between trees like silvery water," or pebbles tossed in a well "breaking the image of the watcher's face into fractal pieces as the stones slowed and wobbled faintly in the water." Such images—the "wolf pit" is one she elaborates and embroiders throughout the book—make the meat and marrow of her work.

The Wolf Pit follows two main characters through the waning years of the Civil War. One is a slave, Agate, whose tongue is cut out by a vengeful master. She miraculously buys her own freedom and finds her way to a remote Virginia farm. The other character is a Confederate soldier, Robin, whose mother owns that farm. Agate and Robin never meet, but their stories intertwine: black and white, female and male, slave and free.

Agate's story is a vividly imagined yet familiar tale of the horrors of slavery. Uncle Tom's Cabin launched this series, Beloved updated it, but the main text does not much change. Abolitionists charged that the chief crime of slaveholding lay not in cruelty (brandings, whippings, separation of families), horrific as that could be, but in stealing a human being's moral agency—the right to direct his or her own life. Slavery they called man-stealing. They might have said soul-stealing. Slavery novels mean to make us feel that theft.

Agate has the good fortune to be raised in the home of Miss Fanny and Mr. Thomas, enlightened slaveholders who teach her to read, encourage her talents, and even proudly, privately publish a volume of her writings. All this refinement comes to nothing when her real, legal master takes over. Then she loses her tongue and nearly everything else. She has been given the gift of writing and then deprived of the possibility of speech.

The same mountain home to which Agate escapes represents, for Robin, a mental refuge from the suffering of war. Robin is a dreamer as well as a fighter. He relishes the thrill of battle yet often escapes into a safe, quiet place through his daydreams. Robin's character is the most filled-out of any in The Wolf Pit, yet his story, like Agate's, follows the steps of other books. The Red Badge of Courage was the first Civil War novel to capture the color-drenched, time-stopping frisson of battle, and The Wolf Pit worthily carries on the tradition. Then there is his mother's mountain haven, which calls to mind Cold Mountain, a recent, popular Civil War fiction. For a good part of the book Robin is captive in Elmira, a Federal prison camp. A more exact, Northern version of Andersonville would be hard to imagine.

The plot may be conventional, but Youmans' images are not. Robin's fevered dreams originate in a strange book he finds in an abandoned house. It tells an English legend of two children found in a wolf pit. They are green in color, do not speak English, and seem eerily alien to the villagers. The children, brother and sister, cling to each other for comfort. They long to return to the place they came from, wherever that may be.

The children's story becomes another country where Robin drifts whenever possible. When Robin sleeps, the green children fill his dreams, and when awake the green children fill his thoughts. He longs for his beloved sister, left at home, and dreams their love in parallel to the green children's. Like the children, he aches to return to the place he came from.

On medical leave Robin visits a sheep-herding farmer who digs genuine wolf pits. Robin watches the farmer and his dogs hamstring and gut the graceful, ghostlike wolves caught in the trap. This picture of death Robin later connects to The Crater, the dynamited hole that Union soldiers at Petersburg blew through Confederate lines, only to find themselves caught and slaughtered.

For Robin, daydreaming about the green children is a survival tactic. They keep him sane amid sheer madness, and as such are a welcome refuge. Yet the children emerged from a wolf pit, a kind of killing machine. A warning note may be heard.

In Elmira, Robin meets a soldier from Louisiana who stays sane through his own retreat to an alternative world—by reciting detailed recipes of Cajun food. This Beaufevre tells Robin, "I think that perhaps you are Israel's child, imprisoned in a pit by his brothers. That you are a dreamer, a Joseph, one who brings good from evil. … All the same, my friend, I would give you a piece of advice: be careful how you indulge your fancy. I shouldn't like for you to wander off into the snow after a will-o'-the-wisp, nevermore to return." Robin's dreams may enable escape and even heal a terrible pain, but life belongs to practical men, not dreamers. One difference between Agate and Robin is her resistance to her fate, her repeated struggle to seize dignity if not freedom. Robin worries about slavery, doubts the Confederate cause, yet finds his refuge in dreams.

What explains the extraordinary and continually growing interest of Americans in the Civil War? Why do books on the Civil War, fiction and nonfiction, dwarf so many equally worthy subjects? Why do nine-tenths of the history books on the 19th century focus on a mere five years? Why do Americans by the thousands attend Civil War re-enactments each summer, dressing up as authentically as possible to live a snippet of a terrible battle? Granted that war is inherently interesting, and that civil wars, representing a nation at war with itself, embody internal conflicts like a Shakespearean play. Still the Civil War has become something more than a war, and less. It has been studied and portrayed so much that, rather than revealing America's past, it obscures. Even the arguments are stylized.

The Confederate flags flying from pickups and the somber PBS music—do they have any real connection to human experience, or are they icons like Elvis—metaphors only for themselves? Like Robin's green children, the Civil War has become an escape from reality.

The Wolf Pit does not solve this problem. For all her good research and her intensity of vision, Youmans never quite transcends the conventionality of her setting. We know how these stories go. We can almost hum along with the music. A novel, whether set in modern times or in history, should show human life piercing like a needle, drawing blood. It is hard to do that in a costume drama, or a TV miniseries.

The Wolf Pit represents a development in Youmans' career from the fine, haunting Catherwood. That novel is brief and minimal, virtually a short story. The Wolf Pit offers a complex plot and much more character development. However, the Civil War setting works against Youmans' subtle, psychological imagery. In Catherwood, the colonial wilderness braced us with strange beauty; we experienced it sharp and fearful, as did the novel's characters. In The Wolf Pit, the eerie beauty of Robin's dreams evaporates against the familiar wash of blue and gray. We know this country too well, and it is not even a real place.

Youmans has written a fine book under the circumstances. Still I ask: isn't it time to give the Civil War a rest?

Tim Stafford is the author of many books, including a novel on the abolitionist movement, The Stamp of Glory.

Most ReadMost Shared