Friday, May 1, 2015

"Ethan's Peach Tree"
Stan Jensen

Stan Jensen’s “Ethan’s Peach Tree” was just about all I had hoped it would be.

Set near Atlanta, Georgia, prior to the Presidential election of 1864, during Union General William Sherman’s campaign to capture the city, the fictitious General Nathan Chambers finds his brigade of the Army of the Cumberland located close to a crossroads that Confederate troops must pass through to evade Sherman and create havoc to the north.  Sherman orders Chambers to occupy and hold the crossroads at all cost.  The author narrates a horrendous battle, one brigade and attach units of cavalry and artillery pitted against an entire Confederate corp. 

For Civil War enthusiasts, this is definitely a book to read.  The author clearly knows his stuff: what soldiers ate for breakfast, how they loaded their weapons, how artillery was operated, how surgeons ministered to the wounded, how generals and colonels lead their men, and much more.  This novel exudes authenticity.

Its detail leaves no reader in doubt as to what Civil War savagery wrought.  Here are two examples.

Moans and murmurs blended, screams merged, cries rose and fell, and while all these voices joined together in terrible concert, the blood slowly cooled in the veins of the dead.

Wounded soldiers cried out.

           “Do ya s’pose when I do finally pass, the Lord’ll have my cut-off arm waitin’ fer me in

“Mama, it that you?”

Offered water, “Don’t want nothin’ but my face back.”

This book is especially instructive to adults (like me) that have not experienced combat.  Its theme of what drives men in wartime to risk sacrificing their lives to kill the enemy is palpably evident.

This novel is not a one-year-in-the-writing, slap-dash, the-story-is-good-enough-so-go-read-it offering.  It is the outcome of thoughtful planning and, I must conclude, considerable revision.  It’s diligence shows in the author’s characterizations; it shows in how he demonstrates his use of researched information; it shows in his careful word selection and phraseology.

We meet all sorts of complex human beings, in all instances but one (in my opinion) entirely believable.  General Nathan Chambers is an excellent example.  He had been raised on an Iowa farm by a father who judges people beyond the boundaries of his land to be deficient in “kindness and goodness … Most people are weak in spirit, they learn nothing from it, only try to pass the hurt on.”  He strives mightily to persuade Nathan not to leave to attend the University.  He tells Nathan that he has worked hard on the farm, taken joy and love from simple things, and has made certain that the family has been safe.  Nathan responds, “I need more than safe.”  He is, in his father’s words, “the thinker, the brilliant one, the scholar, the restless one.” 

In the novel’s first several paragraphs we learn than Nathan is very self-disciplined.  He has weaned himself off the dependency of laudanum to ease the pain of a severely wounded shoulder.  He is able to think clearly amid the chaos of battle.  He is willing to send his soldiers into savage combat.  He exposes himself to a high chance of random death.  Yet he is not devoid of sensitivity and empathy.  He is absolutely committed to defeating an enemy that protects slavery and that continues to necessitate terrible combat and horrendous death.  In battle he is a warrior, angry enough to shout to a regimental colonel: “I want those people dead.  All of the dead!”  In the midst of battle he is capable of making this observation: “No painter could put to canvas what we are now witnessing.  The ranks of disciplined infantry, the flags, the drums, the courage.  My God, what a spectacular evil war is.”

I was especially impressed with the author’s ability to employ sensory imagery.  He is an observer of precise detail that the average person does not perceive during his daily activities.  These details add so much to the realism of what an author wants us to hear, smell, feel, and see.

Rows of tents glowed canvas white in the darkness, some bright with internal candlelight that placed shadows of soldiers on the coarse cloth.

A breeze shook the tent, bulging the canvas inwardly on one side.

Cannons, caissons, and limbers rumbled over the stone bridge, the iron rims of the wheels striking sparks on the stones.

The smoke here was so thick that when an incoming shell streaked through it, the smoke swirled.

The rank odor of singed hair mixed with the hot smell of musket barrels.

Around Dexter, leaves, twigs, and branches fell steadily, clipped by bullets, and he stood firing his revolver at the shadowy enemy beyond their muzzle flashes.

And then there are sensory descriptive scenes.

Devils shrieked across the sky, and all along the Union line the ground shook and the air shivered from the blast of shells.  Trees were blown to splinters.  The earth was augered and plowed by solid shot.  When a section of breastworks heaved up in a geyser of dirt and shattered rail fencing, a soldier went with it, his arms flailing, his legs scissoring.  An officer, wounded in the neck by shrapnel, bled so badly that each time he tried to give orders, blood would fill his mouth and he had to stop and spit it out.

Rawlings picked shrapnel from wounds, tied off arteries, probed with his fingers for bullets, and sawed through the bone of legs, hands, feet, and arms beyond his ability to repair.  These body parts made a bloody mound in the back of a medical wagon pulled up near the live oak.  Doing his work there at the operating table, Rawlings’ feet began to slip and slide.  The ground beneath him was muddy from blood, guts, contents of bowels loosened by agony and death.

Scenes depicting violence are tempered by scenes of tenderness, such as Nathan’s meeting with his sweet-heart prior to his return to war.

She wore a pale rose-colored dress that put white lace at her throat.  When her slender figure quivered, Nathan could see she was struggling to keep control.  He pulled her close, tucked her head under his chin.

Nathan felt her shudder then, and knew the tears had started to fall.  A great tenderness came over him.


Tess looked up at him.  She touched his cheek with her fingertips so gently that he felt his heart tremble.  Her sweet affection weakened him in a way the violence of the battlefield never could.

Family affection is revealed in this scene, the night before Nathan leaves the farm to go to the university.  His brother Ethan does not want him to go.

“I’d chop down every apple tree, and even the new peach trees I’m tryin’ ta make grow if you’d just stay here to home.”

“I’d never ask you to give up your orchard, and I’m askin’ you not to ask me to give up my books.”

Nathan wet his fingers on his tongue, then pinched the candle flame out.  He couldn’t bear to look at Ethan’s face anymore, there was too much sparkling and  glittering.  Nathan could hear Ethan lay back down on his bed, and when Ethan spoke, the soft sadness in his voice stabbed at Nathan’s heart.

“It’ll be a strong hurt, you bein’ gone, Brother,” Ethan said.

The only criticism I have to offer is an opinion.  Nathan’s brother Ethan seemed too good-hearted, innocent, and vulnerable; and the plantation owner Juda Ebeneezer was evil incarnate.  It was as though the author was portraying them metaphorically (good versus evil).  I also felt that the events that brought these characters together were contrived.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed “Ethan’s Peach Tree.”  Stan Jensen is a talented writer.  I hope he writes another novel.