- May the Road Rise Up to Meet You
- Doubleday, 400 pp.
Mystic Chords of Memory
It takes a good bit of courage to write a novel about the American Civil War. Despite the epic nature of the conflict, the events of 1861 to 1865 resist the imaginative power of most fiction writing. The short list of successful novels dealing with the “American Illiad” is very short indeed.
Peter Troy’s May the Road Rise Up to Meet You is the latest attempt to get “the real war into the books.” It is just in time for Civil War 150, the rather muted anniversary observance of the “brother versus brother” battle, a century and a half ago.
Troy’s novel has much to recommend it, including sensitive character delineation and powerful narrative set pieces. But all Civil War fiction is faced with the almost insuperable task of trying to heal wounds that just go on festering, of finding some sort of redemptive meaning for unparalleled carnage. From the first great Civil War novel, John De Forrest’s Miss Ravenel’s Conversion, published in 1867, the problem for the Civil War novelist is to find a middle ground of hope and harmony upon which the survivors can rebuild their battered lives. But most attempts merely result in the literary equivalent of a war memorial: marble men and frozen emotions.
Peter Troy is nothing if not bold in probing the emotional scar tissue of the War for the Union. This was the name used to describe the conflict in the Northern states and this is very much a novel from the vantage point of the Blue-clad side of the battle lines. But Troy’s perspective is much broader and deeper than that. He links the fratricidal blood-letting to two of the other calamitous events of the 19th century: the Irish Famine of the 1840’s and the “Peculiar Institution” of African-American enslavement in the pre-war South.
All three or these events were man-made disasters, including Ireland’s “Great Hunger.” The majority of the Irish population, Roman Catholic in religion, were impoverished peasants. They were dependent on an annual potato harvest to sustain them while their cash crops and livestock went to “pay the rent” to British landlords. It was economic slavery, maintained with invisible chains and callous indifference. When a blight caused by a strain of fungus wiped out the potato crops in 1845 and 1846, the Irish starved and died – or sailed aboard “coffin ships” to America.
Ethan McOwen, the lead protagonist, is one of those who make it to the United States. A twelve-year old “slip of a lad,” Ethan survives a devastating wave of fever that strikes down many of his fellow passengers on board the Lord Sussex. That he does so is due to the kindness of an African-American sailor, Suah, who finds him a safe spot above deck until the fever has passed. The relationship of the emigrant boy, sailing without family to a new world, and the veteran seaman, who had escaped from slavery in Cuba, is very affecting and sets the tone for the rest of the novel.
Ethan’s passage to America and his embrace of life in New York City, is but one of four story lines that eventually converge by the end of the Civil War. There are two African-American protagonists, Micah and Mary. Both endure the degrading experience of being sold at auction, powerfully evoked in some of the most haunting scenes of the novel. When they eventually meet and fall in love in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, their escape plans are betrayed by a fellow slave. Micah and Mary are confronted with making a choice between love and freedom.
The similar experiences of Ethan and of Micah and Mary, of love and loss, are reinforced by the interior dialogues that each conducts with ghosts from their past. Each is consumed with survivor’s guilt. Ethan, whose outlook on life is described as “tempered anguish,” is particularly haunted by the death of his sister during the “Hunger.” Having cheated fate, Ethan, Micah and Mary cling to the memory of lost family members, fallen comrades-in arms, fellow slaves, all carried away by death.
While on the march to attack Richmond in 1862 as a member of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade, Ethan meets up with a group of fugitive slaves. His ghosts suddenly take shape in the lives of these tragic people, so alien, yet so alike in the experience of the poverty and oppression that has befallen them.
It’s a sight that sends a shiver down his spine. Except for the color of their skin and their straw field hats to replace woolen caps, they’re the very image of the crowds he saw gathered back in Newry waiting for the ferry, then huddled together on the boat, then gathered on the docks at Liverpool. Their faces are gaunt, their eyes haunted, just like the folks in the Old Country, yet there’s the same determination in their gaze, clinging to freedom the way the skin-draped skeletons back in Ireland clung to life itself. And Ethan is frozen for a moment, overwhelmed by a sight he never thought … he hoped, he’d never see again.
Troy skillfully uses the dialect of Irish immigrant and African-American slave to emphasize the common bond of their experience as outsiders in the land of the free. As Ethan finds his way into American society and Mary learns to handle her place as a house slave, both must modify the way they speak. Occasional lapses into his Irish brogue betray Ethan’s past. More dangerously, too fine a turn of speech on Mary’s part or failure to “Yah suh, no suh” by Micah can put their very lives at risk.
The fourth protagonist is a spirited young woman, Marcella Arroyo, whose aristocratic family had to flee Spain because of the sexual transgressions of her father. When the family reaches New York, Marcella is expected to lend a gracious presence to her father’s business dinners as he tries to corner a sizable share of the real estate market in the booming Manhattan of the 1850’s. Marcella has other ideas and joins an Abolitionist group, partly from conviction and partly in revolt against the role of an “ornament of society” which she is expected to perform without question.
Male fiction writers frequently fail to do justice to the emotions and aspirations of their female protagonists. That cannot be said for Troy, who crafts a well-nuanced character in Marcella, whose independent spirit points to the link between the role of women in the Abolitionist cause and the first stirrings of the campaign for political equality for women in the United States.
Yet, the feeling is hard to dismiss that Troy is playing safe with his characters. By providing Marcella with a Spanish passport, he runs the risk of attempting to create an ethnically balanced Civil War novel to suit the conventions of the 21st century rather than the realities of the 19th.
The same sensitivity, more in tune with the present than the past, is evident in the way that Troy stirs Ethan’s conscience when he confronts the “runaways” during the march on Richmond. Would a Union soldier, facing death in the Seven-Days Battle in 1862, really have had such an enlightened opinion of escaping slaves? Judging from the letters and diaries of many in the Union Army, African-American refugees were often viewed as a nuisance at best, and as convenient scapegoats for the horrors of the war during its darker moments.
Troy may be excused for trying to formulate a view of the Civil War that can be appreciated in the changed social conditions of 21st century America. Far more serious is the omission of any mention of the New York City Draft riots during the summer of 1863. In any novel (or non-fiction work) that focuses on the interaction of the Irish and African-American communities during the Civil War era, the horrifying orgy of racial violence in July 1863 needs to be considered.
Briefly stated, tensions between New York City’s poverty-haunted Irish population and the smaller, but equally vulnerable, African-American minority exploded when a military conscription act was enforced on July 11, 1863. Two days later, mobs of white New Yorkers, many of them Irish, went on a rampage to protest the Draft. African-Americans were beaten or lynched on sight. The rioting, which was fueled by the competition for scarce jobs, lasted four days, longer than the Battle of Gettysburg. By the time it ended, 119 people were listed as dead. Many important city institutions, including the Colored Orphan Asylum at 5th Avenue and 43rd Street, had been put to the torch. Over 50 regiments of state militia and Union Army troops, some recalled from the Army of the Potomac, were needed to restore order.
Troy’s failure to use this tragic event to advantage is puzzling. Considering the fact that much of the novel is set in New York City, it would have made for great dramatic tension to include the rioting in its plot structure. There were acts of heroism during those frightful days, too, so that the inspiring message of racial harmony could have been preserved. Unfortunately, this opportunity was missed and the novel suffers from the omission.
There is plenty of dramatic incident, none-the-less, in May the Road Rise Up to Meet You. The assault by the Irish Brigade on the Confederate stong point, the Sunken Road, at the Battle of Antietam, is recounted with the life-and-death immediacy of an advancing infantryman. The mysterious appearance of the Northern Lights in the sky on the night of the Battle of Fredericksburg did indeed take place.
When Richmond finally falls in 1865, Troy rises to the occasion with a vivid account of the disintegrating Confederacy. Mary, who has lived in the protective embrace of a wealthy white family, must now decide her own future – for herself. Should she do as ordered and leave on a departing train or strike out on her own? Mary wrestles with her sense of duty to the young white woman she regards as her sister, while yearning to take in “the deep breath of freedom to fill her lungs.” The magic moment of her decision is beautifully articulated.
If the inspiring conclusion of May the Road Rise Up to Meet You is more in keeping with how we wish the outcome of the Civil War should have been, this act of wish fulfillment is not entirely out of place. Troy has written a heart-felt and moving saga of America’s most fateful hour. Anyone seeking to “hallow this ground,” as he does, is making a brave, if almost impossible, act of homage to the Civil War generation.
God forbid that Americans should ever stop trying.