- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005


By Margaret McMullan

Houghton and Mifflin

$15, 144 pages



One normally approaches a work of Civil War fiction with a degree of trepidation.

The usual course of events will find characters who overplay their roles, pseudo-Southern accents rife with strange spellings, and a departure from anything remotely resembling accurate Civil War history.

“How I Found the Strong,” a mininovel by Margaret McMullan, who heads the English Department at the University of Evansville, in Indiana, cheerfully breaks all those “rules” and delivers a delightfully thought-provoking story of a 10-year-old boy, Frank “Shanks” Russell, coming of age in a small town in Mississippi.

The “beanpole” of a boy sees only drawbacks in his young life. He has an older brother who is clearly his father’s favorite and a worn-out mother who is caring for her own invalid mother, which leaves the family’s sole slave, Buck, as Frank’s only companion.

Watching father and brother go off to war instills in Frank a sense of awe at suddenly becoming the “man of the house,” as well as the very real disappointment that he cannot join them. “If I was 12, I could be a drummer,” he muses.

The reader is not told Buck’s age but places him as somewhere near that of Frank’s brother Henry, some two or three years older. There is obvious closeness between the two as Frank considers the ramifications of slavery for the first time, juxtaposing what he has been told with his perceptions of Buck, who doesn’t fit the normal mold. To the boy, Buck is not a slave; he is “just Buck.”

The author comes from the Mississippi area where the book is set, and her tale derives from stories her own grandmother told about a great-uncle to whose diary she was privy.

Sad to say, the author’s agent advised pitching this book as one for “young readers, 10-14,” which may well deny it the larger audience it deserves.

Vague comparisons with the award-winning “Cold Mountain” come readily to mind, since both seek to plumb the depth of a Southerner’s psyche, one of an adult and the other of a child, with similar thoughts and confusions.

The aftermath of battle is bitingly told, as the young boy comes across the site of a field hospital, and for the first time beholds its detritus, “a pile of arms and legs, legs that still have socks and shoes on.” What could have been a maudlin treatment of this scene instead is portrayed as his education into the world of warfare and injury, of mutilation and death.

The problems attendant to slavery are not glossed over: Frank is forced to come to terms with Klansmen who capture and kill a young slave from a neighboring farm. The lad has difficulty comprehending why the lynching has occurred. It is neither an apologia for the peculiar institution nor an exegesis of its faults, merely the impression gleaned by a young boy of the period.

This is not to say the book is all depression and gloom, though the effects of the war on a single family in rural Mississippi is certainly one of poverty, hunger and frustration bordering on desperation.

Having turned 11, Frank decides to “go sparking” with a young girl on the neighboring farm. The author describes his travails as he hand-fashions a pair of “dry weather” shoes, based on his father’s pattern, using a cloth knapsack that Buck has found. When Frank is laughed at by the girl’s brothers, he seeks out Buck to find out why.

Buck replies that “dey laughing at yo’ shoes, Mr. Shanks.” The boy suddenly realizes that his feet are “about half the size of the shoes, the tips hang limp and … look like a joker’s shoes I once seen on one of Granpa’s playing cards, except I don’t feel like a joker and I’m not laughing.”

It should be pointed out that it was an agent’s advice that the book be targeted to the young because of its length (144 pages) and the fact that it contains no sex scenes. When one realizes that the main character is a boy of 10 or 11, that judgment appears specious. It is to be hoped that a readership spanning the generations will see fit to overlook it.

If there is a single scene where the bounds of credulity are strained, it is when Frank saves his father’s life, which seems beyond the abilities of a boy his age. It takes place near the Strong — a river in Mississippi, from whence the title is derived; in a double- entendre, it becomes the ultimate source of his own inner strength.

The author pulls no punches, but treats her subject with gentility, reality and civility, attributes that could benefit today’s young and old alike.

Martha M. Boltz is a frequent contributor to the Civil War page.

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