Buffalo Soldier Sentinel welcomes guest writer Barbara P. Grainger’s April 2, 2012 essay and review of First Dark: A Buffalo Soldier’s Story. Her essay presents a thoughtful discussion of the ongoing debate about the role historic fiction plays recounting history. Renown Mexcian novelist Carlos Fuentes asserted that the real historians in Latin America are its novelists. In this issue, Barbara Grainger shares her insights on illumination and our understanding of the “real” history.
First Dark, by Bob Rogers, tells the epic story of a young slave, Isaac Rice, as he moves toward manhood as a volunteer in the Union Army during the Civil War. Isaac’s story stretches across a large section of the American landscape. It is filled with exploits that are often dangerous and complex. He meets men and women from various stations in life and learns broad lessons about the man’s inhumanity to man and conversely about man’s endearing concern for his fellow man, regardless of race or station. He loves women and is loved in return. Isaac’s adventures cause him to mature into a man whose soul is truly evolved and is in a more majestic place than the common man.
In telling Isaac’s story, Bob Rogers uses a blend of history and fiction. Some are opposed to this type of historical recounting because the injection of fiction is the antithesis of what we know as history. Injecting fiction often employs the blending of fictional characters with real characters. There are those who say blending characters can cause confusion and blur the facts. Why not stick to the facts and leave the historical record as is?
So we raise the question: What are the advantages of historical fiction as opposed to pure recorded history?
As an English major, I am naturally attuned to reading an abundance of fiction as opposed to nonfiction. With pleasure, I get lost in the world of make believe and in it I find escape from the hum drum existence of day to day life. There’s laughter, there’s sadness, and there is the entire range of human emotions. The characters become real and we can react to them, learn from them. We connect with the page and this interaction breathes life into the narration.
History, on the other hand, as I recall from too many sleepy days in class wishing to be somewhere else on the globe, was a series of dry facts: William the Conqueror and the Battle of Normandy – 1066; the Black Death killed so and so many; six million Jewish people perished during the holocaust; Americans bombed Hiroshima on August 6, 1945; D-Day marked the end of World War II. I perked up now and then, perhaps when it was mentioned that a coven of witches might have influenced the winds turning, helping to bring about the defeat of the Spanish Armada. I thought to myself, now here’s a story, but sadly, we returned to old Sir Walter Raleigh.
But, not enough time was spent there. We had to get on with the facts – a chaste recording of facts. The lives of nameless personages became secondary to a listing of events and dates. The events are about people, but the people are removed, frozen into side shots in history books with only their severest countenances exposed. They were flat characters, as we would call them in English – no depth, no humanity.
I knew some facts about the Civil War. The more salient ones being that it was fought between the north and the south, and the north wore blue while the south wore gray. I knew that Sherman burned his way through Georgia and South Carolina. I knew that an important battle was fought at Antietam. Lincoln was president and the slaves were freed. That there was a lot of fighting, and a lot of people died.
Common sense tells us that these events affected people. There were parents left to shed perpetual tears. There were young wives who would forever ache for the comforting arms of their husbands. There were children whose memories would have to be prompted by photographs. These effects on people were lost along the way behind the list of dry facts and dates along with the real stories of the men who yearned for their families, who watched their friends die beside them, and who saw the human body torn asunder in the most vicious ways imaginable. Men who felt their lives seep away knowing that they were leaving hurt behind, opening their souls in prayer to God and seeing in the end what no man can record. None of this is in a history book.
The film, Glory, tells the story of one of the earliest fighting units of the United States Army that was entirely made up of black enlisted men – the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Glory is based on the personal letters of the Fifty-fourth’s commanding officer, Robert Gould Shaw, and supplemental materials. This movie, for one, ratcheted up interest in the Civil War era by its popularity alone. It won numerous awards, including three Oscars. The Civil War came alive on screens across America, and it was relived again and again. As an educator at that time, I saw the film etched into the curriculum as a must for teachers of American History. It piqued the children’s interest and allowed them to see that history involved people and their lives evoked emotions, and their contributions mattered and impacted lives today. Eased between the historical facts of the film were real people, who lived, laughed, suffered, bled, and died. The reality of Shaw fighting amid the prejudices of other officers as well as the enemy in gray gave us something that we could actually feel. We bonded with the characters and saw them as people and we wept when they died. Within the annals of history, no tears were shed. “That’s history” means that it happened and it’s done.
Historical fiction puts past action in the here and now. When the author injects humanity into the dead facts, he is breathing life into the past and providing an interconnection for us and we trudge through murky swamp waters, hold our breath as the enemy approaches, and our bodies feel a jolt when we fire the musket, or we cry out in pain when the bullet tears our flesh. And when we bed down at night, we long for those whose heartstrings are knotted to ours, inextricably, forever.
First Dark is set during the Civil War, but the author employs a floating scenario as he follows the main character, Isaac Rice, beginning with his escape from a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina to join the Union Army through a series of adventures on battlefields across the South, through Mississippi and the Great Plains and on into Texas and Mexico. The story illustrates the guerilla and renegade scrapes between the North and South that occur after the war has ended and during the upheaval of the Reconstruction Era. Buffalo Soldier Isaac wears two faces during the struggles between the Mexicans, Mescalero Apaches, Comanches, Cheyenne, and the United States Army in the west and witnesses times when he does not know which side he should be fighting on because he senses the humanity of all men and sees that it is really brother fighting against brother, regardless of color, and for an ultimate end that might not benefit humankind in general. Along the way, Isaac bonds with a plethora of characters and finds love in the arms of women whose hearts held something beyond race. He became close friends with men of several ethnicities and found that honor and loyalty were oblivious to color.
First Dark was heavily researched and it is to the author’s credit to bring verisimilitude to his work through the richness of varying dialogues, the depth of characterization, the descriptions of local flora and fauna, the mores and customs of differing cultures, as well as historical facts. The insertion of trueness teaches us about this important time in our history, and the invented characters interwoven with real characters make the story memorable.
The expression “That’s history,” compels us to turn the page and move on, but in historical fiction, the book is always open and the page breathes continuously linking lives from primeval times to the present – one humanity, one blood, forever interconnected.
Many thanks to author Bob Rogers for allowing the reader a broad glimpse into this particular period in our history by presenting a saga that is so real that we can become a part of it.
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