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red moon at sharpsburg

17 may 2008

Red Moon at Sharpsburg, by celebrated children's author Rosemary Wells, is a dark Young Adult tale of the idiocies of war. It is a post-Vietnam, mid-Iraq-war look at the futility of warfare and the disasters that war inflicts on a civilian population. But it also belongs to a neo-revisionist tradition that presents the South as noble in terms much different from the earlier revisionism of Thomas Dixon, Stark Young, or Margaret Mitchell. Wells's southerners are people we can identify with, whether we are southerners ourselves or not: anti-racist, committed to science and humanism, wedded to community values which the rapacious individualists of the North are determined to eradicate.

Though the novel is set in Virginia in the early 1860s, there are no slaves in Red Moon at Sharpsburg. Both race and class divides are neutralized by the novel's opening scene. In 1848, narrator India Moody's father Cy, a Shenandoah Valley harness maker, helps save the life of local aristocrat Calvin Trimble. Cy is helped by Calvin's slave Ester Cooley. In gratitude, Calvin frees Ester and her husband Micah, deeding over orchard land to them so that they can support themselves (though, being loyal types, they choose to stay and serve the Trimble family). In similar gratitude, Calvin erases the class barriers between the Trimbles and the Moodys.

India is born a short while later, and taken under the wing of the Trimble family. When her main story begins in 1861, she takes up the study of natural science under the tutelage of Emory Trimble, the young asthmatic polymath who falls in love with the growing India while seeing in her a man's potential for scientific invention. Emory has discovered antisepsis, and is fixing to discover penicillin and lots of other useful things that the still-medieval medical community of 1861 scoffs at.

And that's our backstory: a corner of Lee's Virginia where blacks are free, the classes live in harmony, and intellectual life has thrown off the shackles of convention, standing poised to dower the world with pure reason. But the War breaks out, and everything is thrown into a cocked hat.

India is a Confederate sympathizer, for sure. Wells resists creating the extreme South of some recent juvenile fiction, where everyone seems to be a conductor on an impossible Underground Railroad. Cy Moody joins Stonewall Jackson's army as a farrier. The most evil character in the book is Strother, a Virginian turned Yankee who delights in burning rebels' houses (and of course turns up at the Trimbles late in the war, vengeance on his mind).

But the Moodys and the Trimbles are entirely innocent Confederates. In a cruel irony, among the documents that go up in the smoke of a bonfire set by the turncoat Strother are the free papers and deeds that would confirm the Cooleys in their property. The Cooleys are forced to wander north by the destructiveness that has been unleashed in the ostensible cause of freeing them (but they had already been freed, of course, by enlightened Southern whites).

It's not that scenarios like those in Red Moon at Sharpsburg could never have happened in the antebellum and wartime South; it's simply that they are over-represented in 21st-century juvenile fiction about that South. Wells's Civil War South is of a piece with Miriam Brenaman's in Evvy's Civil War (2002), or Margaret McMullan's in How I Found the Strong (2004): its white people are very good, very courageous, very anti-racist, and very much devastated by a war that they do not support on an ideological level.

For 21st-century juvenile authors, the Civil War seems to have come out of nowhere, at the behest of out-of-touch politicians, for reasons of mere posturing. It's like Iraq 2003, in other words. We understand conflicts of the past through the lens of conflicts of the present. And while we admire Rosemary Wells's artistry, we should remain alert to her implicit ideology, for both good and bad.

Wells, Rosemary. Red Moon at Sharpsburg. New York: Viking, 2007.