Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Review: Devil's Dream: A Novel

Devil's Dream: A Novel
By Madison Smartt Bell

Madison Smartt Bell has chosen none other than controversial Confederate cavalryman, Nathan Bedford Forrest as the subject for his fifteenth novel, “Devil’s Dream.” Forrest was a conflicted man of many contradictions; he was a married man, and slave trader who fathered a son with his black mistress. He was born into a poor farming family and became a man of wealth, and married a woman above his station. He was a Christian with a gambling addiction who profanely swore, but did not drink alcohol. He was a brilliant cavalry officer, brave and daring, though often reckless, who was at once loved and hated by his men.

Bell’s novel covers the twenty years spanning from 1845 to 1865. Jumping backwards and forwards through time, the author examines the complicated relationships of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s life; with his wife and family, his slaves, his black mistress, and his soldiers. Often Forrest’s family is at odds within itself: his wife, the former Miss Mary Ann Montgomery, is jealous of Catherine, Forrest’s black mistress. The author also highlights the sibling rivalry between Forrest’s two sons, Willie, who is white, and Matthew, who is black.

Added into the mix, Bell stirs in a trace of mysticism, as many of the battle scenes are told through the viewpoint of Henri, a free Haitian black, who joins Forrest’s cavalry and frequently talks with the ghosts of Forrest’s cavaliers who were killed in battle.

The books largest failing is what it doesn’t cover, and perhaps the most controversial aspect of Forrest’s life, his relationship with the Ku Klux Klan. For a novel about Nathan Bedford Forrest, this aspect of his life most certainly should have been included, and would have given the novelist so much more to work with.

Nathan Bedford Forrest, the subject of Bell’s novel, never quite emerges from the nebular cloud of his nonlinear prose. Forrest’s speech is filled with dialect, which at once is somewhat cryptic, yet manages to get the point across.

“Devil’s Dream” never quite gels as a complete novel, but rather seems to be a novel in pieces, much like a jigsaw puzzle. It challenges its reader to stay alert and demands the reader’s full attention to put its pieces together in order to see the much larger picture.

ISBN 978-0375424885, Pantheon, © 2009, Hardcover, 352 Pages, $26.95

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