Coal Black Horseby Robert Olmstead
At fourteen, wearing the coat his mother sewed to ensure his safety—blue on one side, gray on the other— Robey thinks he's off on a great
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When Robey Childs's mother has a premonition about her husband, a soldier fighting in the Civil War, she does the unthinkable: she sends her only child to find his father on the battlefield and bring him home.
At fourteen, wearing the coat his mother sewed to ensure his safety—blue on one side, gray on the other— Robey thinks he's off on a great adventure. But not far from home, his horse falters and he realizes the enormity of his task. It takes the gift of a powerful and noble coal black horse to show him how to undertake the most important journey of his life: with boldness, bravery, and self-posession.
Coal Black Horse joins the pantheon of great war novels—All Quiet on the Western Front, The Red Badge of Courage, The Naked and the Dead.
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Although the basic plot is simple, the emotional impact of this book is complex. Robey, 14, is sent to find his father, a Civil War soldier, after his mother has a premonition. At the beginning of the journey, he is given a coal black horse that takes on almost mythic connotations. The early part of the quest is like any other, and the portrayal of the countryside is beguiling and effective. Those whom Robey meets along the way become increasingly threatening. At one point, he is the trapped observer of a brutal rape. He later meets its victim and must confront his sense of guilt. Robey finds his dying father on the battlefield and, in order to survive, he must learn to kill. Certainly this novel invites comparison with Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage , but there are more layers of guilt and redemption here. The story can be read on several levels: some teens will enjoy Robey's adventure and close association with the coal black horse, while other readers will be rewarded by a book that raises troubling issues about the nature of war and carnage. The writing is lyrical and descriptive throughout.
Teri TitusCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
—The Chicago Tribune
—Washington Post Book World
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—New York Times Book Review
—San Francisco Chronicle
- Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
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COAL BLACK HORSE
By Robert Olmstead
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILLCopyright © 2007 Robert Olmstead
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE EVENING OF SUNDAY May 10 in the year 1863, Hettie Childs called her son, Robey, to the house from the old fields where he walked the high meadow along the fence lines where the cattle grazed, licking shoots of new spring grass that grew in the mowing on the edge of the pasture.
He walked a shambling gait, his knees to and fro and his shoulders rocking. His hands were already a man's hands, cut square, with tapering fingers, and his hair hung loose to his shoulders. He was a boy whose mature body would be taller yet and of late he'd been experiencing frightening spurts of growth. On one night alone he grew an entire inch and when morning came he felt stretched and his body ached and he cried out when he sat up.
The dogs scrambled to their feet and his mother asked what ailed him that morning. Of late she'd become impatient with the inexplicit needs of boys and men and their acting so rashly on what they could not fathom and surely could not articulate. In her mind, men were no different than droughty weather or a sudden burst of rainless storm. They came and they went; they ached and pained. They laughed privately and cried to themselves as if heeding a way-off silent call. They were forever childish, sweet and convulsive. They heard sound the way dogs heard sound. They were like the moon-they changed every eight days.
He scratched at his head, knotting his long hair with his fingers. He felt to have been seized by phantoms in the night and twisted and turned, and his body spasmed and contorted.
He told her that he did not know exactly what it was possessed him, and did not even understand what happened enough to be dumb about it, but thought it was a condition, like all others, that was not significant and with patience it soon would pass.
"That seems about right," she said.
As he walked the fence lines that cold, silky spring evening, he let a hickory stick rattle along the silvered split rails. He was thinking about his father gone to war. Always his father, always just a thought, a word, a gesture away. He spoke aloud to him in his absence. He asked him questions and made observations. He said good night to him before he fell asleep and good morning when he woke up. He thought it would not be strange to see him around a corner, sitting on a stool, anytime, soon, now. He had been born on the mountain in the room where his mother and father conceived him, but it was his father who insisted he was not really a born-baby but a discovered-baby and was found swimming in the cistern, sleeping in the strawy manger, squatting on an orange pumpkin, behind the cowshed.
Swarming the air about his head that evening, there was a cloud of newly hatched mayflies, ephemeral and chaffy, their pale membrous wings pleating the darkening sky. Not an hour ago he'd watched them ascend in their moment, like a host of angels from the stream that bubbled from a split rock and pooled, before scribing a silver arc in the boulder-strewn pasture, before falling over a cliff, and then he heard his mother's plaintive voice.
When he came down from the high meadow, the dogs were standing sentry at her sides, their solemn stalky bodies leaning into her.
She said softly and then she said again with the conclusion of all time in her voice when he did not seem to understand, "Thomas Jackson has died."
"It is now over," she said, not looking at him, not favoring his eyes, but looking past him and some place beyond. There was no emotion in her words. There was no sign for him to read that would reveal the particulars of her inner thoughts. Her face was the composure of one who had experienced the irrevocable. It was a fact unalterable and it was as simple as that.
He held his bony wrist in his opposite hand. He shuffled his feet as if that gesture were a means to understanding. He patiently waited because he knew when she was ready, she would tell him what this meant.
"Thomas Jackson has been killed," she finally said. "There's no sense in this continuing." She paused and sought words to fashion her thoughts. "This was a mistake a long time before we knew it, but a mistake nonetheless. Go and find your father and bring him back to his home."
Her words were as if come through time and she was an old mother and the ancient woman.
"Where will I find him?" he asked, unfolding his shoulders and setting his feet that he might stand erect.
"Travel south," she said. "Then east into the valley and then north down the valley."
She had sewed for him an up-buttoned, close-fitting linen shell jacket with the braids of a corporal and buttons made of sawed and bleached chicken bones. She told him it was imperative that he leave the home place this very night and not to dally along the way but to find his father as soon as he could and to surely find him by July.
"You must find him before July," she said.
He was not to give up his horse under any circumstance whatsoever and if confronted by any man, he was to say he was a courier and he was to say it fast and to be in a hurry and otherwise to stay hush and learn what he needed to know by listening, like he was doing right now. She then told him there is a terror that men bring to the earth, to its water and air and its soil, and he would meet these men on his journey and that his father was one of these men, and then she paused and studied a minute and then she told him, without judgment, that someday he too might become one of these men.
"Be aware of who you take help from," she told him, "and who you don't take help from." Then she eyed him coldly and told him, to be safe, he must not take help from anyone.
"Don't trust anyone," she said. "Not man, nor woman nor child."
The jacket on the one side was dun gray in color, dyed of copperas and walnut shells. When she turned it inside out, it showed blue with similar braids of rank. She told him he was to be on whatever side it was necessary to be on and not to trust either side.
"Secure pistols," she said, "and do this as soon as you can. Gain several and keep them loaded at all times. If you must shoot someone, shoot for the wide of their body, and when one pistol is empty throw it away and gain the pistol of the man you have shot. If you think someone is going to shoot you, then trust they are going to shoot you and you are to shoot them first."
Her voice did not rise. It betrayed no panic. She instructed him with calmness and determination, as if the moment she'd anticipated had finally arrived and she was saying words to him she had decided upon a long time ago.
"Yes ma'am," he said quietly, and repeated her words back to her. "Shoot them first."
The dogs shivered and mewled and clacked their jaws.
"Remember," she said, reaching her hands to his shoulders, "danger passes by those who face up to it."
He remembered too how she had told him at twelve years of age he was old enough to work the land, but he wasn't old enough to die for it. To die for the land, he had to be at least fourteen years old and now he was.
When she finished her instructions, he drew a bucket of icy water from the well and splashed himself down to the waist. He toweled himself dry and unfolded a clean linen shirt. He dressed in black bombazine trousers and a pair of his father's flat-heeled leather brogans and then he donned the shell jacket. His square hands and bony wrists extended beyond the jacket's cuffs while the trouser legs gathered at his shoe tops. He plucked at his cuffs and tugged at the bones to make room for his chest.
His mother observed to him that he had growed some on top, as if it were a mystery to her and his face colored in patches for in her voice was carried a mother's tenderness, but for the most she remained distant and did not change her mind and did not suggest he eat and sleep and wait until morning light before he departed.
After a time, long and purposeful, she cast her eyes on him, but she did not gift him with her smile. She reached up and he bent down and she hesitantly touched him at the side of his face. Her fingertips lingered on his cheek and neck as if she were not one with eyesight but was a blinded woman seeing with her fingers, and then she held a button and tugged and he felt as if she was pulling the inside of his chest.
It was then he realized just how sad and how futile his journey was to be. She was sending him in the direction of his own death and she could see it in no other way and she could do nothing else than send him off. Even if he was to return alive, she'd never forgive herself for risking her son's life for the sake of his father's life.
"You take off the coat," she said, changing her mind, and she helped him free the buttons and shuck the coat sleeves from his shoulders and arms. "Be a boy as long as you can. It won't be that much longer. Then use the dyed coat. You will know when."
"You are not to die," she said, though in her face loomed darkness.
"You will be back," she said, her eyes suddenly alive, as if they were eyes seeing the life past this life.
"Yes ma'am. I will be back," he said, glancing toward the darkness of the open door.
"You will promise," she said, commanding his attention.
"Then I will wait here for you," she said, and reached her other hand to his face and drew him to her as she raised her body to his and kissed his lips.
In that kiss was the single moment she reconsidered her imperative. It passed through her as if a hand of benediction. He waited for her to say more words to him, but she did not. He felt her blue eyes wetting his face. She kissed him again, more urgently this time, and they both knew she had to let him go and then she let him go. He stepped away, gave a final wave of his hand and then he left out the door.
Outside, in the cooling, anodyne air of the mountain reach, evening was fading into night. His mother's touch still warmed his neck, his lips still heated from her kiss. He bridled a cobby gray horse with pearly eyes, saddled up, and rode from the home place and down into the darkness that possessed the Copperhead Road. If he had looked back, he would not have seen his mother but the dogs sitting in the still open doorway, their cadent breathing slow and imperceptible.
It took half that night to leave the sanctuary of the home place, to leave the high meadow, the old fields, and descend the mountain switchbacks into the cold damp hollows and to leave the circuits of the hollows and ride through the river mists of the big bottom. The trees and ledges sheltered the starlight as he passed beneath them. The mountain night was uncommonly still and the moonlight eerily shuttered by drifting scud, but in unshrouded moments the moonlight broke through and found the hollows and in long moments he was bathed in its white light as if the hollows were not made of stone but were channels of mirrored glass. So bright was the light he could read the lines in his hands and the gritted swirls in his fingertips.
He was still a boy and held the boy's fascination for how light penetrates darkness, how water freezes and ice melts, how life could be not at all and all at once. How some things last for years without ever existing. He thought if the world was truly round he always stood in the center. He thought, Spring is turning into summer and I am riding south to meet it. He thought how his father was a traveling man and ever since he was a child he too dreamt of traveling most of all and now he was and he felt a sense of the impending.
He let float in the dark air his free hand and then raised it up and reached to the sky where his fingers enfolded a flickering red star. The star was warm in his hand and beat with the pulse of a frog or a songbird held in your palm. He caressed the star and let it ride in his palm and then he carried the star to his mouth where it tasted like sugar before he swallowed it.
Excerpted from COAL BLACK HORSE by Robert Olmstead Copyright © 2007 by Robert Olmstead. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This
"Robert Olmstead is an original in the American grain. . . . From the world of his work—muscular and male—he has fashioned a fresh and vital language."—Tobias Wolff
—Alan Cheuse, NPR's "All Things Considered""It's the kind of novel that you will want to read once simply for the storytelling...Then you will want to read it again to let Olmstead's prose wash over you. It's as muscular, sturdy, well hewn, and wise as the coal-black horse himself.
Meet the Author
Robert Olmstead is the author of eight books. The Coldest Night was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2012, a Kirkus Reviews Top 25 Fiction Book of 2012, and an Amazon Best Book of 2012. Coal Black Horse was the winner of the Heartland Prize for Fiction and the Ohioana Award and was a #1 Book Sense pick. Far Bright Star was the winner of the Western Writers of America Spur Award. Olmstead is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant and is a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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This truly is a very good, interesting and entertaining book, and Robert Olmstead is not as recognized as he probably should be. Though set in the civil war, it's not about the civil war, it just contains elements of it to enhance the story. The imagery is amazing, and the eloquent prose in which it is written in is beautiful. It's not on the same level as All Quiet on the Western Front or some of the Cormac McCarthy books in which this has been compared to, but then again, what is on that level? I highly recommend the book, and I am looking forward to the forthcoming sequal.
I was really looking forward to this one. It had the elements I like: a coming of age story, a quest, and civil war fiction. However, it was just too dang dark for me. Now I don't want to disuade anyone from reading it, it has recieved incredibly good reviews from other readers so if this is your genre I suggest to give it a try. Perhaps it might be best suited for male readers. Although I couldn't finish it, I couldn't give it only the one star (per my norm for abandoned books)because it does warrant more than that on the quality of the writing.
There is a coal black horse in this story, but it's not about him. The lead character is Robey, a fourteen year-old boy sent by his mother on a mission to retrieve his father from the battlefield. In a short novel, Olmstead uses the perfect details to create memorable characters, reveal the crazy face of War, and explore the loss of innocence. Although there is pain and ugliness in the story, there is also beauty and kindness. I hesitate to call anything an instant classic, but if you compare this novel to The Killer Angels or Cold Mountain, it does not suffer much. The universality of the human experience in this tale will bring it back to your mind's eye after you turn the last page. Perhaps it is not even about Robey- perhaps it is about you and me. Do not miss it.
Best novel of war and innocence I have ever read.Describes the most horrible events ever experienced by Americans- the Civil War, through the eyes of a boy. I cannot forget this book.
This is a wonderful novel that illustrates the horror of war and where it takes humans. The depravity and cruelty that surrounds the battlefield and the lengths one goes to survive, is balanced against love, loyalty and family.
Story didn't flow and the descriptions of scenes were wordy and not clear or believable.There were to many stops and starts without cohesion.
Very realistic Civil War story of a young boy forced into manhood when he searches for his father on the various battlefields.
This is definitely a book for men. It discusses many gross adventures and I'm truly sorry I wasted my time.
Exquisite. Beautifully written. Almost a prose poem.
Interesting historical perspective. I felt like i was right there. Horses were important and necessary then as they are now to those who still ride.
Hey, I never said they rp'd on the NOOK. She helps me a lot when I'm depressed. A lot more than I ever thought.<p>Question Heut de Dix:<br>My bestest friend's name is...(rl not rp)
Sorry but i gtg right now. Cna qe figure this out tomorrow sometime. Really sorry, and not trying to abandon my duties as deputy. -Strongfire