- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 16, 2002

John Duke Merriam had a good idea for a Civil War novel: Re-fight Gettysburg, have the Union forces rout Bobby Lee and his Confederates and put the South on the run for good, and see how American history played itself out over the remainder of Abraham Lincoln's first term.

Mr. Merriam had a good title, too: "Meade's Reprise." This is George Gordon Meade's book, a chance for the Union commander at Gettysburg to take back his reputation. Faulted for failing to counterattack Lee aggressively on the real battlefield, Meade gets to pursue him relentlessly on this fictional one. By war's end, Mr. Merriam's Meade has become the American Napoleon and that's before his final sacrifice.

To the rich roster of soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, the author adds a potentially intriguing lineup of invented figures. He spices the actual subplots of the battle and its aftermath with enough new subplots to keep five writers busy. A chain of black spies that begins with Lee's manservant provides the intelligence that turns the tide of battle. Meade's most trusted aide, the high-born and fictional Maj. Fitzpatrick, falls for a camp follower turned surgeon's aide turned "Angel of Gettysburg" for her tireless ministrations to the wounded and dying. And on it goes.

The problem is that to do justice to the grandeur of Mr. Merriam's vision would require 700 pages or more and the touch of a Tolstoy. This book has neither. A one-time U.S. Foreign Service officer and World Bank executive, the author clearly is a gifted amateur historian and a dedicated student of the Gettysburg battlefield. He tries hard from first page to last.

Because he attempts so much, however, Mr. Merriam has little time or space to do much when he finally gets where he's going. George Pickett's famous charge looms large over the early part of the book, but when the moment finally arrives, the charge and all its horrible slaughter pass mostly in the shadows while the narrative races on to the next special moment.

The imposing Confederate 1st Corps commander, James Longstreet, rides into a trap and is taken prisoner in a few short pages a devastating loss that manages to generate drama despite its brevity. Ten pages later, Lee himself is captured, along with generals Jubal Early and Richard Ewell. Yet what should be a monumental opportunity for any alternative historian of the Civil War is handled with a curious lack of drama.

Because so much is weighted the same, little stands out.

Blink, and Richmond falls. Blink, and Joe Johnston is surrendering his army in Farmville, Va., not Durham Station, N.C., where the real Johnston finally laid down his arms 11 days after Lincoln's death. Blink, and John Wilkes Booth is slipping into the presidential box as "Our American Cousin" plays on the stage at Ford's Theatre on that awful night of April 14, 1865 replayed here with a different outcome.

The book has a cast of thousands but too little space to do most of them justice. The black spies are a nice nod to the often subtle role of slaves, runaways and freedmen in the war effort, but these spies come off more as fairy-tale characters than real ones. Save for his wrestling with the lures of the flesh, Fitzpatrick is perfection itself, far more so than most of us can handle. A rosy epilogue does nothing to erase the feeling that we have slipped into never-never land.

For all the time he spends onstage in this novel, even Meade remains shadowy. Without his fortuitous spy network, absent Fitzpatrick's invariably winning advice, would Meade have had the stuff to trounce Lee? It's hard to tell just what is inside the man.

Intriguingly, Meade's nemesis, Dan Sickles, commander of the Union's 3rd Corps at Gettysburg, may be the most successfully realized of all the characters. Authors often fall in love with their bad boys, but Sickles, a Tammany Hall politician and scoundrel to the bone, gives a writer much with which to work. Far more often, Mr. Merriam's extensive dramatis personae serve up vectors of plot and history: men and women whose sole purpose is to move the story forward or connect this fictional history to the real one.

Writing teachers are forever drilling into their students three simple words: "Show, don't tell." In this sprint through 21 of the most crucial months in American history, John Duke Merriam too often does the opposite. There's no time to stop if he's going to get everything in, everything said.

"Meade's Reprise" is laudable for its vast ambition. The book is testament to the enduring hold the Civil War and especially Gettysburg have on the national imagination. Re-fighting the battle and re-jiggering history is fun, even educational. We gain by looking at what we think we know through a different lens. Read this book, and you'll be wiser about the real events of July 1 to 3, 1863.

For all that, the author deserves thanks and praise. But the first duty of a novelist is to tell a story to give us believable people behaving in believable ways, however invented the circumstances. If readers are asked to suspend disbelief, they need a credible alternative world into which to walk. This novel falls too short on that score.

Howard Means is the author or co-author of six books, including "The Banana Sculptor, the Purple Lady, and the All-Night Swimmer" with Susan Sheehan, and the novel "C.S.A." He lives in Bethesda.

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