Thursday, July 17, 2008

A House Divided: A Review of "Two Brothers"

Two Brothers: One North, One South
By David H. Jones


With the coming of the American Civil War many families found themselves torn apart by conflicting ideologies and loyalties. Fathers and sons, uncles and nephews, brothers and cousins sometimes faced each other on opposite sides across a field of battle. Often times, and certainly with more frequency the families most severely divided came from the border states of Missouri, Kentucky and Maryland. The Crittenden and the Todd families are but two examples on a lengthy list one might compile of families that were split apart by the war. The Prentiss family of Baltimore, Maryland is a family that could also be enumerated on just such a list.

In his novel, “Two Brothers: One North, One South,” David H. Jones tells the story of the Prentiss family. Clifton, the older brother, fought for the Union cause and rose to the rank of major in the 6th Maryland Infantry, while his younger brother, William served in the Confederate Army with 2nd Maryland Battalion. Both were mortally wounded minutes and yards apart at Petersburg, Virginia in the closing days of the Civil War.

After the battle the brothers were taken to Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. where they are cared for in separate wards. One of the volunteers in the hospital was Walt Whitman who frequently visited William, and upon William’s passing located Clifton to inform him of his brother’s death. Two other Prentiss brothers, John & Melville, arrive soon after, and Whitman tells the three siblings what he has learned about William’s service with the Confederate Army.

Unfortunately Mr. Jones’ novel has a few serious flaws. The title of the book, “Two Brothers,” is somewhat misleading, as Clifton’s storyline is often overshadowed by that of his younger brother. The story is told from the opposing viewpoints of Clifton and William; however William’s story is filtered through Walt Whitman, which brings me to the narration.

There is not a central narrator in Jones' novel. Clifton Prentiss tells his part of the story and Whitman is left to relate William’s. There are several times throughout the book, especially at the beginning of chapters where it is not all together clear as to who exactly is narrating, Clifton, Whitman, or a literary 3rd person narrator. Whitman’s narration is particularly flawed as he relates details that he did not have first person knowledge of and most certainly could not remember with such clarity. This is problem when the novel wanders off with the secondary characters of sisters Hetty and Jenny Cary and their cousin Constance Cary, in which Whitman is giving third hand information to the surviving Prentiss brothers. Whitman was not present for any of the events related, and for some of them neither was William. How did Whitman come to know of such things? Many of the episodes involving the Cary’s are tangential in reference to William’s story and should have been judiciously pruned from the novel.

There is far too much exposition in the book. There is a writer’s axiom that states: “Show, don’t tell.” Jones spends too much time telling the story, and instead of showing it through the eyes and actions of his characters. I got the impression that Mr. Jones, knows a lot about the Civil War, and just couldn’t help inserting his knowledge into the story… for one example, the book is set in June of 1865, at one point the author makes a reference to Lew Wallace and notes that he would later gain fame as the author of “Ben Hur” which would not be published for another fifteen years.

The dialogue does not ring true, especially when it is weighted down, as it often is, with exposition relating details to the reader that would have been common knowledge to anyone during the war.

The characters are two dimensional, there is no character development. The war years were years of turmoil and angst for any and all who lived through them. There is plenty of room for Mr. Jones to have taken literary license and given motive to his characters actions, or gone into their heads, to see the story through their eyes, to show us what their motivations and how they felt about things. It was an opportunity missed, and therefore the reader is left not caring about the characters. As for John and Melville Prentiss, they serve absolutely no function in the book at all. The character of Walt Whitman is used solely as a literary device to tell the story, and is also never fully fleshed out as a character.

There is much to like about Jones’ novel, negating its structural and narrative problems, it is a great story, and I enjoyed reading about the Prentiss brothers and the Cary Sisters. But unfortunately even the most beautiful house cannot remain standing when it is placed upon a weak foundation.

1 comment:

kk said...

This happens more in the families wholive together. Anyway good sharing!