Excellent Novel About A Veteran’s Postwar Mission
Every so often a book comes along that makes the past profoundly relevant to the present. Such is the case with Antonio Elmaleh’s new historical novel, The Ones They Left Behind.
His book is a breath of fresh air given our current state of affairs in a deeply divided United States. Not only does the book resonate with hope and redemption, but it touches on other issues and pathos that we as a nation contend with, including the plight of being a wounded warrior.
The core of the story revolves around Union veteran Harriman Hickenlooper, a soldier in the 6th Iowa Volunteer Infantry who participated in Sherman’s March to the Sea.
In 1867 he sets out to retrace that route in an effort to resolve his own inner demons and rediscover that people at their deepest level are kind, compassionate and forgiving.
His faith in humanity is central to the premise of the book. So certain is Hickenlooper that he will not be harmed as he makes his way across Georgia that he literally bets his farm on it.
On this venture he wears his Union uniform but does not carry a firearm, just a faded American flag. What transpires along the 245 pages of Elmaleh’s terrific prose and narrative verve is a story that will tug at the reaoer’s heart strings without dripping into maudlin sentimentality.
While his journey seems to be absurd and utopian in concept, Hickenlooper defies all convention in this absolute page-turner.
His escapade is a one-man truth and-reconciliation commission, mostly seeking to resolve his inner turmoil, but also to make amends to others he· encountered when he was in Sherman’s military juggernaut.
The ever-idealistic Hickenlooper not only wants to make peace within himself, but also for the nation, which is struggling to emerge from the fratricidal carnage of the Civil War in one of the most devastated regions of the country. On his journey Hickenlooper confronts not only his demons, but all of humanity’s deepest sins: wrath, envy and deeply rooted prejudice.
All of the characters in the novel are multi-dimensional and believable. Elmaleh is skillful in weaving issues of gender and race against this dark backdrop. One of the most poignant scenes is Hickenlooper’s reburial of his brother, whose remains he recovers on his journey.
One of the novel’s most significant characters is not human at all, but rather a clock that serves as the metaphor for time and has a much deeper meaning in the plot’s context. So in some ways this novel is a mystery, with all the tension inherent in one, and the clock’s character pushes the novel forward in a well-paced, but frenetic manner.
The bet on his farm in Centreville, Iowa, requires Harriman to complete his journey from Centreville to Savannah, Ga., and back, unharmed, in 44 days.
Given the mysterious nature of aspects of the novel, readers might expect that the twists that occur along the way would be dark. But the genius of The Ones They Left Behind is they are not.
Rather, they remind us of the potential for good that each person has within himself, and readers are not left feeling forlorn or depressed. While the book is readable, it is deeply contemplative without being pushy in matters of morality.
The conclusion is a stunner, too!
This book is highly recommended on a number of levels. It is a pure joy to read. Also, anyone who has an interest in the frailty and glory of the human heart or the price everyone pays when a nation goes to war should read The Ones They Left Behind.
James A. Percoco
James A. Percoco Is Teacher-in Residence for the Civil War Trust and The Journey Through Hallowed Ground Partnership, the author of Summers With Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments, and a member of the National Teachers Hall of Fame.
REVIEW ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN PRINT MARCH 18, 2015