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Scoop up some skillygalee and enjoy Civil War novel

For more than 140 years, the name of Andersonville, the infamous prisoner of war camp in western Georgia, has evoked all the horror of the Civil War.

The postwar trial of the prison's officials (dramatized by PBS in the Emmy Award-winning The Andersonville Trial in 1971) almost seems like a 19th century version of Judgment at Nuremberg.

Escape From Andersonville, the third novel by actor Gene Hackman and Daniel Lenihan, sees Andersonville from the inside out. It might well be called Escape and Return to Andersonville, as much of the story concerns Union Capt. Nathan Parker's efforts to return to Georgia and rescue his men — efforts thwarted as much by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman (to whom a relative handful of soldiers at Andersonville is low priority) as by Confederate forces.

This offers Hackman and Lenihan a plot device for a view of the ravaged South from Georgia west to Vicksburg, Miss., replete with colorful characters, including Israel Benjamin, a Jewish tavern owner from Tuscaloosa, Ala., with pro-Southern but anti-Confederate sentiments, and Marcel Lafarge, a former Confederate officer turned smuggler who becomes Parker's ally.

As a literary work, Escape From Andersonville isn't Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, but neither is it the 2007 novel Never Call Retreat by Newt Gingrich, William R. Forstchen and Albert S. Hanser, which manages at the same time to be both pulpish and pompous.

Escape doesn't get at the big ideas of courage, patriotism and death, as Crane does, but it deals very well with smaller issues such as loyalty, trust and lost love, and it presents them in a realistic setting. Hackman and Lenihan aren't exactly prose stylists, but for the most part their descriptions and dialogue are vivid, unpretentious and convincing: "The rust-colored Yazoo River that had wound its way from the north, moved slowly in the afternoon rain, dumping reddish earth into the Mississippi at Vicksburg."

The historical detail in Escape From Andersonville is sharp and focused without boasting of its own scholarship. In this passage, Lafarge invites the famished Parker to breakfast: "Please bring the captain eggs, ham, toast with preserves, and a pot of coffee. Hurry now, my good man, our Northern friend is starved. Oh, by the way, would you like some skillygalee?" (That's a soldier's typical fare of hardtack mashed up with salt pork and cooked into a mush that softens the hard biscuits.) "As the waiter left they could hear him mumbling, 'Skillygalee.' "

Try ordering that at Cracker Barrel.

The novel meanders a bit and indulges in some unconvincing Dickensian plot devices (such as Parker's hasty trip to Washington, which results in an unlikely reunion with his former lover).

On the other hand, there are undercurrents to hold the attention of smart readers, particularly the inspiration the hero draws from his mentor, Henry David Thoreau: "He . . . read excepts from Thoreau's journals by the light of a campfire. This ritual helped him maintain composure and gave him some private ground where he could wrestle with his nightmares." How refreshing to find a hero in an adventure novel invoking Walden rather than Sun Tzu's Art of War.

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and books for Salon.com.

. review

Escape From Andersonville

By Gene Hackman

and Daniel Lenihan

St. Martin's Press,

352 pages, $29.95

Scoop up some skillygalee and enjoy Civil War novel 05/25/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 3, 2010 12:25pm]
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