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the civil wars of jonah moran

13 June 2005

Last year, I picked up a copy of Marjorie Reynolds's Civil Wars of Jonah Moran on a deep-remainder table at an outlet mall in West Virginia, and I finally read it about 11 months later. The title caught my eye, the premise (a collector's obsession with Civil War miniatures) intrigued me still further, and the novel itself, though only tangentially related to the American Civil War, is a substantial accomplishment.

Jonah Moran is the title character, but he does not speak for himself in Reynolds's novel, and we see very little of his inner life. Jonah has Asperger's Syndrome. Though he is more emotionally connected to those around him than the high-verbal narrator of Mark Haddon's Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Jonah is retiring and uncommunicative. Most of what we know of him comes from the reflections of his sister Jessica, a troubled woman who has come home to their rural Washington village to escape a bad marriage and confront her own past. And there's a crime at the heart of Civil Wars, as there is in Curious Incident: only here, the autist is not the detective but the prime suspect.

As Jessica Moran works to clear her brother and find the real arsonist/killer, she must work through her tangled relationships with her domineering mother Lila, her long-estranged lover Callum (who is also the chief federal investigator in the case), and with the people of the town of Misp, who present a typical American mix of racism, openheartedness, and torpor.

Meanwhile, Jonah stays close to his miniature battle board in his mother's basement, dreaming of Nathan Bedford Forrest. A figure of Forrest becomes a key clue in the mystery, but the great cavalryman is also a clue to Jonah's own identity: the perfect general, everything that the disconnected Jonah can never be.

Much of The Civil Wars of Jonah Moran takes place in and around the Quinault Indian reservation on the Olympic Peninsula. It's a believable setting, strongly researched – and a distinct contrast to Jonah's obsessions with the past and the far-away. The Civil War, Reynolds reminds us, can be present almost anywhere in American culture, as escapist hobby or deep-seated point of reference for personal and social conflicts.

Reynolds, Marjorie. The Civil Wars of Jonah Moran. 1999. New York: Berkley, 2001.