I was invited to give a talk at the Civil War Trust Annual Conference in Richmond last month. The Civil War is by far the most written about period in our history and the Trust and its 60,000+ members work to preserve both the legacy and the actual ground the war was fought on. It was a big deal for me to be invited to speak at and participate in this event with historians whose work I’ve read and who’ve spent their whole lives writing and lecturing on this topic. Just to up the ante a bit more, I was told just before my talk that because the historical novel has not been presented before in this setting, I was the first author to ever read aloud his work – lecture being the traditional format. No pressure…
During my talk, I chose to read the regimental reunion scene that starts Harriman on his way back to Georgia. Right after I finished reading, it was as if I jumped inside the book. In a moment of stunning clarity just like the one Harriman experienced when he first made the bet, I found myself saying something I didn’t think I could ever admit to anyone, much less to an audience of 150 Civil War buffs.
“I have a confession to make. I didn’t discover what the book is about until after I finished it.” There were some nervous chuckles, but no one headed for the exits. Gamely, I plowed on. “The book isn’t so much about the War as it is about the effects of the war on everyone. And it’s about how and why we’re still fighting the war, why we’re trying to make a lasting peace and why, like anyone suffering from PTSD, we are terrified to face the fact we’re in for a lot more pain in order to heal from the wounds of the war and Reconstruction.”
Yes, Reconstruction – in my opinion the most overlooked, worst-taught, least understood yet one of the most critical chapters in our history. For good reason. In my mind, Reconstruction is a greater tragedy because we had already paid in blood to define our national ideals, but didn’t learn enough and summon enough courage to integrate those ideals and live by them once the bloodshed was over. Trumpeting ideals while not living them has robbed us of the integrity and the courage necessary to confront the moral challenges of racism, income inequality and justice applied selectively. We would do well to get right with them if we want to live in A House United, in a United States of America.
The moderator who had introduced me said, ”Now that we’ve heard the catalytic event, don’t leave us hanging. Give us a hint how the book turns out!”
A beat. “No,” I said, smiling.
A voice called out from the audience. “Buy the book!” I couldn’t have scripted it better. I actually left them laughing.