Monday, April 20, 2009
Bedlam South is a thrilling and evocative triple tale of the action and the atrocities of the Civil War as told by its participants. Zeke and Billy, two brothers enlisted in the army of northern Virginia, struggle to stay alive and connected to each other amidst the horrors that the war is inflicting upon them and the men around them. They both spend a good deal of time wondering about the safety of their family and the home they left behind. As they march across the country and get pummeled by the Union forces, they see their friends and fellow soldiers slaughtered one by one, until the day of a particularly ferocious battle when Billy goes missing among the carnage. Zeke, injured and scared, must continue the march with his unit, leaving Billy behind to a fate that he struggles to comprehend and accept. Meanwhile, the mysterious Dr. Joseph Bryarly arrives in Virginia from England, ready to become the supervisor of one of the most vile and notorious mental institutions, Richmond's Wingate Asylum. What the humble and compassionate doctor doesn't know is that the hospital has already been commandeered by the sadistic and unstable Captain Percy and his band of thugs. Without any oversight, Percy and his bandits have made the asylum a living hell for all who enter, be they the mentally afflicted, deserters, or prisoners of war. Doctor Bryarly must find a way to keep his patients and himself alive and safe from the maniac Percy, who is intent on torturing and murdering whoever gets in his way. Bridging the gap between these stories is the tale of Miss Mary Beth, a woman forced to sell her body to soldiers in order to survive. Although Mary Beth is despised by most of the town's women and adored by most of the men, she hides a secret. It is Mary Beth who will discover that her secret has the power to save Dr. Bryarly and his ragged group of patients, saving herself in the process.
This was a very arresting book. The three stories told within the pages were a unique mix of topics and situations. I have read stories of war, stories of mental asylums, and stories of hard luck women before, but never all in the same book. I think that all told, the elements of the story were well integrated and ran together very smoothly. Each story held great tension and drama and seemed to flow perfectly from one section to the next. It was with mild frustration that I realized that each section was ending right at the moment I had been most anticipating, until I realized that I was actually getting back to a section that I had been engrossed in and waiting for as well.
The battle sections were done in an almost academic fashion, and I thought, very well researched and accurate. Each skirmish and rout was told with substance and weight, with a full exploration of the human element as well. Although I tended to prefer Dr. Bryarly's sections over those depicting the war, I really felt that the authors honed in wonderfully on the tremendous difficulties that faced the Confederate soldiers. Through the myriad of battles, the characters extemporized on what war means to societies, families, and individuals. These astute observations were both interesting and at times distressing. The sheer magnitude of the casualties was difficult to stomach. All these men were someone's brother, father, husband or son, and it was especially hard to see beloved characters being sacrificed to the cause.
The sections that revolved around Wingate Asylum were both incredibly interesting but at the same time very painful to read. The level of torture that went on behind the gates of the asylum was wrenching and terrifying, and at times I had to take small breaks from the book due to the graphic nature of some of the "treatments." At one point, a patient's head was shaved and he was forced to kneel while a caustic mixture of mustard plaster was applied to his head, face and neck. He screamed in agony as angry blisters and weeping sores broke out over the mustard-covered surfaces. At other times patients endured "therapeutic immersions" (i.e., attempted drowning), a horrible device called the "Utica crib" and many other things that turned my stomach. It is hard to say that I liked these sections, because surely I did not, but I appreciated the historical accuracy that was being reflected in them. In no way was I prepared for the brutality I faced during these scenes, but I had always been more than a little curious about the way the mentally ill had been treated in earlier times. I believe that most of these sections were accurate, as the authors indicate that they scoured several reference works regarding the treatment of the mentally ill in the last section of the book.
I found the book to be very dark and at times provocative, although I think that there really could have been no other way to relate the mayhem and turbulence that permeated the societies that were reflected here. The topic was bleak and dismal, but executed in a way that was both eye-opening and heartrending. There was simply no way that I could remain uninvolved and uninterested in this story. There were, however, areas where I thought the book could have been more smooth. The early dialogue was a bit unbelievable and wooden, but this was only evident in the early sections of the book, when the authors seemed to be getting to know and grasping their characters. Also, I felt that the pace could have been a bit quicker in certain areas, but I admit, it may have been my personal experience with the shifting story lines and my preference of certain sections.
My principal thoughts on this book were very positive. I think the narrative was both eclectic and informative, and although some of the main characters rubbed me the wrong way at times, I think that was an intentional construct that the authors utilized very well. There was just enough action to make the story feel pressurized without sacrificing the depth of character, and not enough coincidence to make things feel forced. There were some amazing moments in this story, and I really felt invested in most of these characters and their plights. Ultimately, this felt like a very good first novel from this writing team. The authors have just completed their second joint effort, Chiasson, which will take place in the years leading up to the Civil War, and focus on the inexorable progress towards the secession. I look forward to it as well.