Elegant Writing Makes Oldest Confederate Widow Jump Off the Page

Allan Gurganus' "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All."

Allan Gurganus’ “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All.”

I’m grateful to a friend for introducing me to Allan Gurganus and recommending this book, which ranks among the best novels I’ve ever read. Lovers of language will be enthralled with Gurganus’s writing, sharp as a hound dog’s sense of smell with imagery brilliant as sunlight reflecting off dewy grass. The author’s gift for words, dialect, description and conveying emotion makes it a compelling read.

The narrator, a Southern woman whose good humor belies a life filled with tragedy and hard luck, speaks directly to the reader but the story reveals the viewpoints of several characters — a Confederate soldier who went to war at age 13, a freed slave with undying ties to her homeland, a plantation owner changed by the ravages of war — and Gurganus evokes settings, whether it be a battlefield in Virginia, a riverside settlement in Africa, or a dark livery stable in North Carolina, by appealing to the reader’s every sense.

Most remarkable are his descriptions of characters which make them jump off the page: “From the door, two old people people came forward, walking just alike, side by side. They looked varnished brown. They appeared roasted, like they were past ever dying — like everything moist in them had been baked, like what stayed on would last. Their faces: little fist-sized hams.”

Or this one: “Lack of teeth meant Reba Woman’s nose most chafed against her chin. Poor thing had nostrils so wide open, they about like spare eye sockets waiting for eyeballs to roll down in there on vacation.”

Allan Gurganus

Allan Gurganus

Today, we hear so much about veterans returning from war with post traumatic stress syndrome. Gurganus makes it clear that this is not a modern phenomenon. One of his main characters is a man whose life is devastatingly affected by the boyhood trauma of killing a Yankee soldier, a teenager just a year or two older than him.

Ultimately, Gurganus has written a book that is anti-war and anti-gun. Given recent debates about gun control, I was surprised to read this prescient passage from a book published in 1984: “Now, of course, daily newspapers are full of such killings. People walk into grammar schools and shoot kids they’ve never even seen before: because last week’s paper described somebody walking into another school and shooting other unknown kids and because something in that appealed to them.”

When he wrote that passage, Gurganus could not have known how bad things would get.

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