The Silent

Overview

Edmund "Mundy" McDowell is barely fourteen when the Civil War invades the Shenandoah Valley. He watches in shocked horror as a gang of Union and Confederate deserters loot and burn his home and then brutally murder his parents. From that moment he wanders silent and seemingly invisible through a valley of death. He is guided by a mysterious black dog that has eyes of fire and may or may not be real. And he is haunted by the memories and voices of those who've died. On his nightmarish journey, young Mundy will ...
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Overview

Edmund "Mundy" McDowell is barely fourteen when the Civil War invades the Shenandoah Valley. He watches in shocked horror as a gang of Union and Confederate deserters loot and burn his home and then brutally murder his parents. From that moment he wanders silent and seemingly invisible through a valley of death. He is guided by a mysterious black dog that has eyes of fire and may or may not be real. And he is haunted by the memories and voices of those who've died. On his nightmarish journey, young Mundy will cross a hellish landscape scarred by makeshift hospitals, endless fields of the dead and dying, and the anarchic terror and joy of battle. He will encounter runaway slaves, mystic madmen, suicidal cavalry officers, cold-blooded murderers, enigmatic prostitutes, and nobly misguided heroes, all displaced by the apocalyptic conflagration. And in the end Mundy must decide whether to go back to the world of the living--or remain an invisible silent spirit.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Dann's maudlin but sporadically engaging second novel (after The Memory Cathedral) treats the Civil War as a phantasmagoric experience and takes the form of a "therapeutical" memoir set down (in 1864!) by 13-year-old Virginian Edmund McDowell. After seeing his mother raped, both his parents murdered and his home burned by Yankee marauders on March 23, 1862, the boy retreats into speechlessness and a cloak of imagined invisibility, wandering for 75 days in a mute post-traumatic stupor through the battles ranging around Winchester, Va. The account is burdened by the repetitive, ill-defined symbolism of a "spirit dog," the ghost of a slave named "Jimmadasin" and an enigmatic icon known as "baby Jesus." Innuendoesthat the famously rigid, religious Gen. Stonewall Jackson tipples on the side, and that McDowell's hero, Col. Ashby, is a pedophilelend the tale neither depth nor verisimilitude. Delirious variously from fear, dysentery, ague and a primitive smallpox vaccination, the protagonist is raped by a Yankee malingerer and given his heterosexual initiation (and a dose of the clap) by a worldly teenager who consorts with runaway slaves and deserters. After witnessing oral sex between a mapmaker and his wife, he eventually is taken to the bed of his hero, Col. Ashby. No number of rapes and pillagings can bring this tedious, ahistorical novel to life. (July)
VOYA - Beth Karpas
Imagine Mathew Brady's battlefield photographs turned into words: these are the images found in Dann's text. The autobiography of Mundy, a young Confederate teenager, begins with Mundy witnessing his mother's rape and murder and hearing his father's screams as his father burns with their home. Not one to slouch from the brutalities of 1862, Dann sends a now mute Mundy into a Confederate hospital camp where he is sodomized by a soldier whom he then kills. The remainder of the novel shows Mundy wandering the South, occasionally joining various segments of the Confederate Army, running from "bluebellies," deserters, runaway slaves, and spirit dogs, never quite knowing whether he is a spirit or a person himself. This is a fascinating novel, full of disquieting descriptions and memories of a youth lost in the Civil War. Dann's afterword explains that Mundy is partially based on roving bands of orphans who crossed the South at the time, but the youth's troubles and confusions could be attributed to a boy of any time who witnessed and experienced similar abuse. This is a very serious, mesmerizing book, recommended in small doses for readers of adult public library collections and for mature YA readers. VOYA Codes: 5Q 2P S A/YA (Hard to imagine it being better written, For the YA reader with a special interest in the subject, Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12 and adults).
Library Journal
"It was around the time I saw the spirit dog and became invisible that I forgot how to talk.Getting to be a spirit meant you had to lose things." This fine novel tells the horrific tale of a boy unable to escape from a hell he didn't make and can't begin to understand. Mundy McDowell, not even 13, watches in silence as Yankee deserters kill his father, rape and murder his mother, and set fire to their home. He is struck dumb, his thoughts filled with recurrent "visions" of sex, death, and mutilation. The line between reality and fantasy is tenuous in his thoughts, made more so by constant hunger and illness. Mundy traverses a nightmare landscape, engaged on a demon quest, seeking an inner peace that no longer can be found. From the author of The Memory Cathedral (LJ 10/15/95), this is narrative storytelling at its best -- so highly charged emotionally as to constitute a kind of poetry from hell.
Library Journal
"It was around the time I saw the spirit dog and became invisible that I forgot how to talk.Getting to be a spirit meant you had to lose things." This fine novel tells the horrific tale of a boy unable to escape from a hell he didn't make and can't begin to understand. Mundy McDowell, not even 13, watches in silence as Yankee deserters kill his father, rape and murder his mother, and set fire to their home. He is struck dumb, his thoughts filled with recurrent "visions" of sex, death, and mutilation. The line between reality and fantasy is tenuous in his thoughts, made more so by constant hunger and illness. Mundy traverses a nightmare landscape, engaged on a demon quest, seeking an inner peace that no longer can be found. From the author of The Memory Cathedral (LJ 10/15/95), this is narrative storytelling at its best -- so highly charged emotionally as to constitute a kind of poetry from hell.
Kirkus Reviews
A ferocious portrait of the Civil Warþs human toll. Dann (The Memory Cathedral, 1995, etc.) isn't much concerned here with causes or outcomes. His gruesome chronicle of the suffering of 14-year-old Edmund McDowell, caught up in the efforts of þStonewallþ Jackson to defeat a Federal Army in 1862, is clearly intended to remind us that the Civil War was as brutal as any other war. Mundy disobeys his minister father and goes in search of a skirmish, hoping to watch his hero Stonewall chase the Yankees out of his valley. Instead he stumbles into the midst of a rout, finds the body of a longtime acquaintance who had been searching for him, and arrives home in time to see Union deserters shoot his father and rape and murder his mother. Sick and disoriented, Mundy wanders in and out of the battle lines. Made a prisoner, heþs compelled for a time to work in a Union field hospital, witnessing almost unimaginable horrors. Escaping, he falls in briefly with a band of renegade slaves, and after leaving them becomes the companion of a deranged Confederate cavalryman. Despite Mundy's efforts to escape both his memories and the ever-widening war zone, he inevitably finds himself back in the middle of the slaughter. There is no doubt that Dann captures, in a way few other novelists have, the sheer bloody chaos of battle in the Civil War. Scenes of carnage and madnessþwith Mundy ravaged by fever, prone to hallucinations, or convulsed by griefþlinger in the mind. But the conceit of writing the book as Mundy's memoirs doesn't work; it isn't likely that any 19th-century teenager would have said all the things Mundy does here. And the narrative is finally too long, toorepetitive, as if the author didnþt trust the reader to grasp how awful war is. Still, Dann's anger, and his portrait of combat's sheer horrors, make for a vividþand disturbingþread.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553380385
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/3/1999
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Meet the Author

Jack Dann is the author of several novels, including The Memory Cathedral and The Man Who Melted. He lives in New York and Australia and is at work on a new novel.
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Read an Excerpt

1: Seeing the Spirit Dog and Forgetting How to Talk

Oh yes! Oh yes!
I been conjurin'
Oh yes! Oh yes! Oh yes!
I been killin',
No cause, no cause, no cause,
In de worl'.

--Conjurin' Song

It was around the time I saw the spirit dog and became invisible that I forgot how to talk.  I can think the words in my head and write them down on paper (well, you can see that!), but when I open my mouth to try to talk, I just seem to choke.  Doctor Keys had a word for it, but I forget what it was.  Naming it seemed to make everybody feel better, though.  That's more than I've seen most doctors do anyway--except to cut the arms and legs off soldiers.  I sure as hell saw a lot of that! I think those goddamn doctors killed more soldiers than all the guns and artillery put together.  But I'm getting ahead of myself here.  Uncle Randolph says I'm always getting ahead of myself, but I'll tell you the whole story for whatever it's worth.

I could start anywhere, I suppose, but that would take too long, so I'll start right out on March 23rd, 1862.  It was a Sunday, cold and miserable and cloudy.

Come to think of it, though, the only real sunny day I can remember around then was ten days before General Jackson pulled our army out of Winchester because General Banks had brought his Federals down from Harper's Ferry to invade us.  Not even him and Colonel Ashby's "Six Hundred" could've held out against Banks's blue-ass bucktails.  Seemed like there was a million of them.  And boy, was there a commotion in Winchester! Poppa took me to town to see General Jackson, although I met him later on my own and wished I didn't.  As our army started off toward the Valley Pike, all the girls and old ladies were crying and wailing that they were being left to godless tyrants, and some of the soldiers were even crying, just like their mothers, and then suddenly the soldiers just starting singing "Yes, in the sweet by and by," and pretty soon everybody was singing it, until they left.  Then the town was quiet as death, I can tell you.  Well, maybe not that quiet, but pretty close to it.  Nobody wanted to talk.  Everybody just felt like crying, I guess.

But there I go digressin' away from my story .  .  .

Anyway, on the Sunday I originally started off talking about, the people in Winchester had damned good reason to be caterwauling and crying because that was what they now call the battle of Kernstown, which you all know about.  It was when Jackson came right back up the pike to fight the Federals, who outnumbered him two to one.  And it was bad! But I'm going to write about it, no matter how much it hurts me.

Now, Poppa used to insist on going to church every Sunday morning.  Although he never had a church of his own, he was still a proper minister.  Usually Episcopalian.  And as we also had the farm and the day school, we made do well enough.  We'd usually go to country churches and prayer meetings at people's houses, where Poppa could preach the skin off the snakes, as Mother used to say when he wanted her to do something.  But Poppa had friends in Winchester too, and was invited by Mr.  Williams (he was the rector) to preach at the Episcopal Church on Kent Street.  Mother was all excited because she loved going into town and seeing everybody, especially Mrs.  McSherry, who was her best friend, but I never did like Mrs.  McSherry's boys.  Not much, anyhow.

Of course, I wasn't going to church with them on account of the ringworm.  I had the 'ruption all over my scalp, and it itched like a sonovabitch.  My father attributed my malady to hanging around with the nigger kids--he would never say "nigger," even though we had two of our own before they ran away to the Federals.  He only allowed us to call them "colored people" or "darkies" or "servants." Like everybody else, I called the old ones aunts and uncles, just like I did my real aunt and uncle, those I knew like family, anyway.  I never understood him about that.  Christ, the niggers called themselves niggers.  So he thought I caught the eruption from the niggers who lived on the next farm--we'd borrow them sometimes to help with the farm work--but I reckon that I got it from David Steward's dog.  David was one of Poppa's students, and his half-dead Irish setter had a terrible case of the mange, but I felt sorry for the damned thing and petted it.  David had the ringworm too, so it had to be the dog.  Course, so did the niggers.  Seemed like everyone but Mother and Poppa had it that season.

Mother didn't care how I'd caught it.  She'd been doing her best to cure it by rubbing my head with silver nitrate medication that burned like fire and another potion she'd made up by dropping a copper penny into vinegar; and part of my hair fell out because of it and hasn't grown back even yet.  And as a further humiliation, I had to wear a turban around my head "so as not to scratch the worms and infect everybody else."

"I can't go out like this," I said to Poppa when he called me out of my room, expecting me to be all shined up and dressed for church.  I was in my night drawers, and I left my turban off.  My hair was mussed and greasy and itchy.  Poppa was wearing his best black suit and a shiny cravat, and Mother was wearing her Sunday dress and a brooch and a bonnet with a white bow.

He turned to Mother and said, "If you were conspiring with him to stay home on the Lord's Day, you could have at least told me.  I would have made provisions.  We could have borrowed Eliza from Arthur Allen.  She'd look after him while we're gone and make sure he had a decent Bible lesson." Poppa shook his head, as if he was telling somebody "No," and said, "At least his darkies didn't run off to the Yankees."

"You know why ours left," Mother said sharply.  That stopped Poppa pretty cold, and then she looked at me and said, "And how do you suppose we'd look taking Mundy with his head looking all encrustated like that? Mr.  McDowell, sometimes I wonder about--" Mother would always get started and then stop just like that.  Now she was the one looking guilty.  She talked low now, as if she was being introduced to someone important.  "Mundy will be fine here alone.  I've prepared his Bible lessons to study while we're at church.  Everything's all laid out on your desk.  You might want to approve it, of course.  And we can stop at Mr.  Allen's farm on the way to church.  I'm sure he won't mind sending one of the servants over to look after Mundy." She looked at me and nodded, as if to say "I told you so."

But I knew they wouldn't do any such thing.  They always used to threaten me with Eliza.  All she ever did though was tell me to read the "Raising of Lazarus" or "Daniel in the Lions' Den," and then she would put on all of Mother's dresses and bonnets and jewellery and twirl around like she was at a ball.  But she never did steal anything.

I heard a real good blast of cannonading in the distance; and Mother got the funny look on her face that she always gets when she's concerned and said, "Perhaps we should all stay here with Mundy."

But Poppa said, "It's just the usual annoyance of the enemy," and that was that.

He limped out onto the porch to listen, though.  I should have probably told you that Poppa had served in the militia as a chaplain until he got an inflammation in the bone of his leg.  He almost died from the blood poisoning and brain fever, and he had to use a cane after that, and sometimes his words would get all mixed up--but never when he was preaching the skin off the snakes.

"It's just skirmishing, like yesterday, and the day before that," he said, sniffing, as if he could smell the noise.  He used to do that in the schoolhouse back behind the barn, lift up his head and take a sniff, and then he'd take the switch to whoever was passing notes or whispering or not paying proper attention.  "But it might just come to something.  Your Colonel Ashby, God bless him, must be biting off General Shields's toes again.  And I hear that Jackson's coming north.  But that's all gossip.  I hear the same thing most every day." He sniffed again, and sure enough the cracking of muskets started, then died, and it seemed like it would just be an ordinary Sunday, except I wouldn't have to go to church.

Mother finally came out on the porch and said, "I do fear leaving Mundy alone."

"Well, I gave my solemn promise to Mr.  Williams that I'd deliver a sermon, and a man's word is his bond.  You can come with me or stay, as you will."

You see, Mother would always turn everything around on Poppa.  And there just wasn't any way she was going to stay with me and not go to town, even if she would have to worry about me a little.  We were used to the cannonading and the skirmishing.  It was nothing more, I suppose, than having thunderstorms every day.  Only that wasn't true.  Everybody was fearful, just nobody cared to show it.

I watched my folks go off in their carriage, but I didn't know that I was only going to see them once more in my life.  Or that Sunday was going to bring more than thunder.

It was going to bring the dogs right out of hell.

I listened for a while to the cannon volleys and musket fire echoing across the hills and waited for them to stop.  They always did.  But then they'd start right up again like rain falling hard on a tin roof.  I knew something more than skirmishing was going to happen--I could feel it--and I knew that Mother might talk Poppa into turning the carriage around, so I went out beyond the old corn house that had burned down.  I went past the garden and lumber house by the edge of the woods to check the gums, which was what Poppa called our rabbit traps.  I don't know why we called them that.  I'd asked Poppa about it once, and he just said that's what they're called.  We used boxes about two feet long baited with pieces of apple, and they worked better than noose snares, that's for sure.  Poppa wasn't much with a rifle and never had time for it, so we ate a lot of rabbit during the winter.  I'd catch fifty, maybe more before summer, and that was more than enough to fill out what we had of bacon, sausage, pigs' feet, and ham.  It was against the rules to kill rabbits on the Sabbath, but I usually did anyway.  I'd leave them hanging in the smoke house because it wasn't fair to leave them in the gums until Monday.

I knew I was fooling myself with all this business of going out to the woods to check the gums.  I knew I was going to see about the skirmishing, but I just felt better fooling myself.  Maybe I might change my mind and go back to the house and study the Bible.

I found only one rabbit; it was in the gum by our stone fence.  It was a big one with brown spots; and as I grabbed its hind legs with my left hand, it shook like it was vibrating.  I know how to kill rabbits quickly and efficiently, just hit it sharp on the back of the neck and drop it before it dies.  Bad luck if it dies in your hands.  Aunt Hanna--she was our servant who ran away to be with Uncle Isaac--told me that if an animal dies in your hands it's bad luck and you'll surely die before your next birthday.  So I always dropped them quick.

Anyway, I was ready to hack this fat rabbit right behind the ears and drop it next to the gum when something strange came over me, and instead of killing it, I threw it right over the stone fence and let it escape into the woods.  To this day I don't know why I did that.  It wasn't like I felt sorry for the rabbit.  Maybe it was because I knew I was going to break my word to Poppa and go out to watch the skirmishing.  Maybe I didn't want to commit two sins right after the other.  Angry with myself for being so stupid, I climbed over the fence and left the farm.  But you know, something felt different, not right, as if just then something had changed; and yet I couldn't tell you what.

It wasn't difficult to figure where the fighting was.  I just had to follow my ears, which, of course, led me just about to Mr.  Joseph Barton's farm.  I knew this country pretty well and cut through the woods and over Sandy Ridge.  No sense walking big as life through the fields and getting your foolish ass shot off.  The woods were empty because the fighting was concentrated pretty much along the pike, and it was just skirmishing, nothing much more than that from what I could tell.  But I couldn't see anything much, not even from the ridge, which is pretty high and starts to the west of Winchester and runs some six miles down to the Opequon Creek.  The pike's not far and runs along to the side of it.

I guessed that the Yankee guns were firing somewhere around Pritchard's Hill, and that our own were returning fire from Hodge Run or maybe below.  If General Jackson and his army were around, they certainly weren't here.

Course, soon as I figured that, I heard twigs snapping all over.  Then I heard what seemed like a thousand muskets firing all around me, and there seemed to be a whirlwind of balls suddenly flying around and hissing just like snakes.  I could almost feel the whomp of a  ball as it hit a tree trunk to my right.  Somebody shouted and I heard the thud of a ball hitting something soft, and a noise such like someone just had his breath knocked out of him.  And then I heard a heartbreaking wailing like a mother who'd just lost her son.  "Come on, boys," someone shouted in a bluebelly dialect, and more twigs cracked as men ran through the woods.

I stayed close to the ground.  It was cold and damp, and I could smell the moss on the birch and, I swear, I could also smell the sour-apple sweat of the soldiers even though I couldn't see much of them.  I did see several men through the trees, and I thought they might have been our own, but I couldn't tell; they could just as easily have been Yankees.  I crouched even harder against that birch tree as if I could squeeze myself right into the bark when the muskets started firing again.  It was hard to tell where the balls were coming from.  It didn't seem like there could be that many soldiers out here.  Most of the Yanks were at least a half-mile away.  Then I heard someone stepping through the woods near me calling and crying over and over in the most plaintive voice you ever heard, "Whey is my boys? Whey is my marsters?" And that voice sounded just like Jimmadasin, the McSherrys' house servant.  You couldn't miss it; he had a voice that was so high and reedy, it sounded just like a woman's.  But I always thought he was having it up on all of us, because when he sang his voice would suddenly get deep and full.  He was responsible for minding Allan and Harry McSherry, who were twelve and fourteen, respectively.  (I told you about them before; their mother, Cornelia, was my mother's best friend.)

Well, the shooting stopped, and someone said, "Get the hell outa here, you crazy nigger.  Yer gonna get yourself killed." That sounded like one of our boys, but I guess it didn't much matter to the nigger who it was because he just kept on walking until he was right beside me.

And just as I'd thought, it was Jimmadasin right there in the flesh.  He was wearing the filthy felt hat he always wore, pulled down right on his forehead, and though he was old, he was no bigger than me.  His

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
An Author's Note of a Sort xi
1 Seeing the Spirit Dog and Forgetting How to Talk 1
2 Piling Up Dem Bones 21
3 Private Newton's War in the Air 47
4 Jimmadasin Rises Up from the Dead 59
5 The Walkin' Boy 75
6 The Cave of the Baby Jesus 91
7 When Dixie Died 115
8 In Heaven with General Jackson and Abe Lincoln 131
9 Losin' Things 163
10 Listenin' to the Spirits Fight 189
11 Followin' the Spirits through the Smoke 209
12 The Power of Roots 221
13 Puttin' Money in the Bank 247
14 The Portals of Heaven 269
Afterword 281
A Note from Jack Dann 283
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