Howard Bahr, author of the critically acclaimed novels The Black Flower and The Year of Jubilo, offers another remarkable Civil War tale. Three veterans, former soldiers of the doomed 21st Mississippi, are the focus of The Judas Field, and the highly sympathetic Cass Wakefield serves as their reluctant leader. Twenty years after the battle of Franklin, Tennessee, Cass is persuaded to retrace his regiment's journey to that battlefield by a dying childhood friend, Alison, who wants to bring the remains of her father and brother home. As they travel, Cass recalls his fighting years and what they cost him and the men he served alongside. Bahr's superb handling of battle scenes won't surprise readers of his first two novels, and in The Judas Field he brings an extraordinary emotional depth to the brutality. Cass as a soldier seems nearly apathetic to the cause, but despite the terror and exhaustion, when the band plays, the flag is raised and the bayonets are strapped on, he is a fierce warrior. He is joined in battle by his cousin's fiancÅ½, Roger, a sensitive pianist, who protects his fingers even as he kills, and 14-year-old Lucien, an orphan with a warped sense of God and little reason to believe in his own worth or inherent goodness.
Cass' sense of responsibility to his two brothers-in-arms carried him through the war, and he expressly forbids them to accompany him and Alison back north, but Lucien and Roger follow them to Franklin. Once there, the foursome discovers that the war is as fresh and devastating a wound to the people and landscape of Franklin as it is for them, and they are drawn into a tragic, inevitable confrontation. Bahr is at his poetic best here, every word chosen and placed precisely and beautifully. The Judas Field presents us with a heartbreakingly realistic picture of the madness born of violence and war, and the redemption to be found when the past is finally put to rest. Kristy Kiernan, a native of Tennessee, writes from Naples, Florida. Her debut novel will be published next year by Berkley.