Lance Weller’s first novel, Wilderness, recounts the harsh world of the Civil War and its aftermath unflinchingly. At the same time, he redeems it with flashes of tenderness as bright and ephemeral as the shooting stars that fascinate his protagonist, Abel Truman.

Truman is an odd but interesting character to embody the era’s small glimmers of kindness. When we first meet him he’s a gruff, old, banged-up, frightful-looking Civil War veteran. He lives at the edge of the ocean in the Pacific Northwest with a dog who’s in only slightly better shape than he is. He can almost always be counted on doing and saying the wrong thing, sometimes to the point where he puts his own life in peril. Yet his compassion is unsullied, whether he’s easing a young soldier to his death, saving the life of a blind Chinese girl who still remembers him in her old age, or caring for his dog. In turn Abel is blessed, once in a blue moon, by the kindness of strangers.

Like so many Civil War tales, Wilderness is a story of journeys through a chaotic world. The war has destroyed the social order, and no one knows what will replace it. Even nature, described in Weller’s beautiful prose, has been unsettled, the trees blasted apart by cannonballs and meadows set on fire.

Trees, by the way, aren’t the only things blasted apart by cannonballs. Weller’s depictions of a battle Truman and his fellow soldiers find themselves in are as horrific as his descriptions of nature are gorgeous. The miracle is that Abel Truman keeps his gnarly humanity even after witnessing such things. With its acknowledgment of both horror and beauty, Wilderness is an impressive debut.

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