In Landsman, his first novel, Peter Charles Melman offers a vivid and original Civil War story. More than simply an absorbing historical novel, in the tradition of works like The Red Badge of Courage or The Killer Angels, it's a serious work of literary fiction that grapples with moral questions in a page-turning tale. The year is 1861, and Elias Abrams is a 20-year-old New Orleans street thug, the illegitimate son of wealthy planter and an indentured servant, a Jewish woman who emigrated from France. Elias enlists in the Confederate Army to escape prosecution for his role in a grisly murder. He's dispatched to Missouri and soon is introduced to the horrors of war, described by Melman in stark, unflinching prose. Elias' life takes a dramatic turn when his commanding officer gives him a letter from Nora Bloom, a young Jewish woman from New Orleans who's written the letter in the hope it will be shared with some Jewish soldier in the regiment. Seizing on her words of encouragement and support, Elias quickly develops a passionate, if idealized, attachment to Nora. His comrade, John Carlson, a college classics professor from New Orleans, helps him craft a reply, and Elias begins to imagine a future with Nora, farming a plot of land in a time of peace.
But before Elias can realize his dream he must do what he can to survive the war and devise a plan to deal with the events that caused him to flee New Orleans. When he finally makes his way back home, overcoming both injury and captivity, he must reckon with his boyhood friend, Silas Wolfe, the leader of his old gang and a figure of frightening power and surpassing evil. Their final showdown, played out in a game of poker whose stakes are the highest imaginable, unfolds in a scene of breathtaking tension.
Richly imagined and beautifully told, Landsman displays the skills of a literary craftsman. It's suffused with lavish period detail and yet the tale it offers is as contemporary as any modern love story. Melman has mixed a sumptuous blend of all the elements of classic storytelling to create a profoundly satisfying work.