By Peter Charles Melman
Counterpoint, 320 pages, $24.95.
Few chapters of American history have inspired as many novelists as the Civil War. If, as the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has said, it is our “Iliad,” then we’ve been graced with not one, but hundreds of Homers. What America has been without is an Isaac Babel, a writer who could filter the country’s defining conflict through a Jewish lens. That is, until now. In his lush debut novel, Peter Charles Melman tells the story of Elias Abrams, a richly drawn representative of the roughly 2,000 Jewish men who fought for the Confederacy.
Abrams is a New Orleans orphan, schooled on the streets of the French Quarter. He runs with a band of small-time thugs known as the Cypress Stump Boys, who, when not playing cards, visiting bordellos, drinking or brawling, keep themselves afloat through con games and the occasional break-in. As the novel opens, one such heist has gone off track and their mark is killed. Though not the murderer, Abrams fears that his friends are going to make him take the fall. Seemingly without other options, he signs up for General Lee’s army.
Melman uses his title, “Landsman,” to mean two things, both of which become thematic concerns. It serves as shorthand for a life lived through the cultivation of the land and the spirit of comradeship connoted by the Yiddish sense of the term.
Abrams is the son of an Alsatian immigrant woman who comes to America as an indentured servant. She works the land, but can call only a small parcel of it her own. (Abrams is the bastard son of his mother’s onetime master.) When Abrams is 11, his mother falls victim to a yellow fever epidemic. She bequeaths to him two things: a love of the land’s generative powers — and the desire to someday become the respectable landowner she could never be. “A man’s a man,” she tells her boy, “but I’ll be damned if he ain’t more of one, he got himself a plot…. Sure, I got this little parcel, it ain’t bad far as dirt goes, but it’s up to you, Elias, to really stake that claim now.”
Abrams arrives at the front with his guard up, but battle has a way of both hardening and softening him. With time he befriends a fellow infantryman some 10 years his senior. A well-born classics professor who also hails from the Crescent City, John Lee Carlson soon comes to play Virgil to Abrams’s Dante. The hero also develops a rapport with his company commander, a fellow Jew named Samuel Myers Hyams. The officer passes his young coreligionist a letter from Nora Bloom, a 17-year-old Jewess asked by her New Orleans rabbi to write to a Jewish soldier at the front so as to show appreciation and boost morale. With some literary assistance from Carlson, Abrams begins a spirited exchange with his new correspondent, who, with her scented letters and irrepressible goodness, prompts Abrams to start imagining a life beyond the front, one made up not of carousing and pocket picking, but respectable rootedness.
With its ornate language, epistolary romance and tales of battlefield valor, “Landsman,” may smell a bit musty, but there’s more here than rote genre fiction. Melman is of course familiar with literary forebears Stephen Crane, Margaret Mitchell and Charles Frazier, but there are more modern, in some cases cinematic, influences here, too. In his descriptions of Abrams’s soulless street thugs one hears echoes of “A Clockwork Orange,” and, late in the novel, when Abrams is captured and in the hands of a sadistic Polish-born Yankee, one’s thoughts land briefly in the world of “Schindler’s List.”
Melman’s most significant achievement, though, lies in breaking down the framework through which the Civil War story is conventionally told. North, South, black and white aren’t the key points of reference here. Instead, Melman, who was raised in Louisiana and now teaches high school English in Manhattan, goes about telling the war’s story sideways — through the Indians with whom Abrams comes to fight against the Union and through Jews like Hyams. But Melman doesn’t simply exchange one set of groups for another. His book is ultimately anti-tribal. He offers good and bad Yankees, good and bad Southerners, good and bad Jews. Justice, in the universe of Melman’s novel, is achieved not collectively but individually, and it’s colorblind.
Early in the novel, in an attempt to explain his thoughts on race, Abrams tells his commanding officer about a scarecrow he once set up in his mother’s garden. “Make ’im a nigger,” a neighbor advises. “Scares the bejesus out of beast and man alike.” Abrams complies, but the crows return undaunted. Next, Abrams tries a Jewish scarecrow: “Big old cob nose, skullcap for his pate, couple dangling horsehair locks, beard down to here, the whole basket of apples.” Again the crows return, no more and no less scared than before.
At novel’s end, Abrams — older, wiser — goes back to where his scarecrow once stood. “He sees no caricature there anymore,” Melman writes. “He sees no exterior at all, of any kind. All that remains after the years of wind and rain and sun is the bare wooden skeleton beneath, weather-beaten but standing.”
Gabriel Sanders is the associate editor of the Forward.