The author, Robert Olmstead, is one of those good authors writing under the radar of the mainstream. The big publishers and list compilers ignore him because he's both difficult to pigeonhole and refuses to commercialize his work -- we should all be thankful for small publishers like Algonquin. Is he an author of westerns, historical fiction, or serious contemporary literature? No, the novel is not a horse or animal story nor either a western or just a historical novel. Yes, it's set in the eastern battlefields of the American Civil War in 1863. However, the author purposely keeps the place names vague because battlefield horrors and behavior of people are the same in all wars. Whether from a Minnie ball or an IED, killing and maiming are killing and maiming.
Robey Childs's mother sends him to the war on a quest to find and bring back his father. A neighbor lends him a magnificent coal black horse. Throughout this search, the boy quickly comes of age by running a gauntlet of life-threatening obstacles and encounters. He's shot, loses his horse but gets him back, witnesses endless wounded and the dehumanizing brutalities of warfare. He finally finds his father wounded and dying. The boy's childhood is gone. He's tested to his limits, and to what degree will he become a product of this hellish environment? The descriptive images remind the reader of Dante, the black etchings of Dore, and Bertholt Brecht's anti-war play, Mother Courage and Her Children. Throughout Robey's odyssey, the "Coal Black Horse" provides him with strength, willpower, and a stability he desperately needs and comes to rely on.
By the end of this tough, stark rite of passage to manhood, the reader can easily forget that Robey is only fourteen. Imagine the untreated PTSD cases before there was a VA! Upon returning home to his mother with a raped and pregnant girl in tow, he yearned "...to long for the past when he was a boy and lived as a boy..." But he knew that was impossible. "He had died a first death and a second and a third." Life was a series of births and deaths. As with the girl Rachel giving birth to twin boys, Robey had been reborn.
Winner of the Heartland Prize, the novel can correctly be compared to The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet On The Western Front, and Mailer's The Naked and The Dead. The author's terse style and "on the road" plot reminds the reader of The Grapes of Wrath, Hemingway, and Cormac McCarthy. Readers should also take a look at his 2010 "Spur" winner, Far Bright Star. 229 pages. Highly recommended for high school reading lists and assigned class reading.
Recommended by Robert L. Hicks, Librarian.