A Horse That Knows to Stand or Run
book review by Paul Hunter
COAL BLACK HORSE, by Robert Olmstead (Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 218 pp., 2007)
This past year like most shut-ins I’ve had time to read, write and sit quiet, but little met my need to face some ugly truths and quiet our political and social demons, until I came across this 2007 novel set in the Civil War, a ruggedly chiseled but beautifully rendered piece called COAL BLACK HORSE, by Robert Olmstead. The main character is a 14 year-old backcountry boy whose mother has a premonition, sends the boy to find his father and bring him home. They live in the Appalachian mountains, farming a high remote ridge in what is now West Virginia. The boy’s father has enlisted in the Union Army, and neither Robey Childs nor his mother Hettie knows where he is. But Hettie has heard that Stonewall Jackson has been killed, and her troubled visions and dreams lead her to send her boy out on this vague lifesaving quest. She makes the boy a reversible linen shell jacket, gray on one side and blue on the other, with corporal’s stripes on both sides. She tells him to turn his coat to match those he approaches but trust neither, and gives him a story to be told in haste, that he is a courier with messages, that she thinks will get him through most roadblocks and patrols.
It is a naive plan, but serious literature has often been hung on less sturdy hooks (consider Don Quixote on his quest), and the boy sets off. His mother says he has to find his father before July of this year, 1863. Her fiercest command is: “If you think someone is going to shoot you, then trust they are going to shoot you and you are to shoot them first.” She says to waste no time going, and trust no one – man, woman or child. She is a loving mother, and we get to see her wrestling with the possibility that she is sacrificing her boy on what might be a fool’s errand. She gives him what she has, which is nothing much but the disguise and a tired old horse and her advice that is both mystical and world-weary.
But then as soon as Robey gets down off the mountain in the dark to the nearest backcountry settlement with his old cob horse lame and spent, the storekeeper who was a friend of his father offers him the loan of a coal black Hanoverian stallion and a pair of .44 Army Colt pistols, that belonged to a man he just buried. The horse well deserves the title of the book, since it is a formidable near-mythic being who sizes up the boy and likes him right away. For the rest of the book the horse is a presence – imperturbable, observant, looming over the battlefield and roads in the night, utterly dependable. On the way to the fighting – which it turns out is Gettysburg – Robey is creased by a head-wound and the horse and pistols are stolen from him by a fierce little man disguised as a woman. At this moment Robey is like Huck Finn minus Jim and the raft and great river, at the mercy of the grownup world, a loss that for a while threatens to finish him.
After a hellish stretch where the boy himself becomes a scavenger and thief, Robey finds and regains the horse, and thereby regains his purpose and his potential manhood, in the chaos swirling around the two battered armies’ retreat from Gettysburg – and all the wounded left on the battlefield, many still alive. The matter-of-fact battlefield descriptions can leave the reader gasping for breath. It is there that Robey finds his father, mortally wounded, shot through the head but still alive. There is no medical aid to be sought, and no way to bring him home. But father and son spend three days together in a glimmering light of their own, before the father dies.
Then begins Robey’s retreat in the night, that the black horse makes possible. Listen to the clarity and bluntness we are offered:
“The highways were beset with a confusion of regular and irregular troops. There were partisans and bushwhackers. There were profits to be taken and old scores to settle. He’d learned in no uncertain way that this was war too, name it the war inside war. No matter, it was as much a part of war as war itself and in war you get killed just for living.”
Most urbane reviewers of this book gave one element short shrift or no shrift – that of the coal black stallion. But the book is written by a man who grew up on a farm in New Hampshire and knows the character and strengths of horses. The boy rescues a young pregnant girl who is a despairing victim of rape, and takes her with him, and because they’re young and vulnerable, pursued by scavengers and thieves attracted to the battlefield’s scattered riches, they hide and rest by day and travel by night for weeks. The black stallion is their eyes and ears, the calm quiet muscular center of Robey’s plan to return home and fulfill in part his mother’s wish. But are horses that smart? That alert? Do they know their way around? In wild country wild horses hide easily, and seldom get lost. They know to be quiet, avoid detection, and can see in dim light. They commonly see, smell and hear far beyond the coarser senses of humans. And yes, they do occasionally seem to choose us.
The coal black horse remains nameless, a chance loan from above, but is part of the hospice and comfort for the dying father, and a great measure of the going on. The horse makes up for the shortcomings of Robey, lets him do the man-sized job of reuniting his family, repairing and preventing what evils he can, in a world that, but for the coal black horse, has lost its sense and its way.