After returning from the Civil War, Cass Wakefield means to live out the rest of his days in his hometown in Mississippi. But when a childhood friend asks him to accompany her to Franklin, Tennessee, to recover the bodies of her father and brother from the battlefield where they died, Cass cannot refuse. As they make their way north in the company of two of Cass's brothers-in-arms, memories of the war emerge with overwhelming vividness. Before long the group has assembled on the haunted ground of Franklin, where past and presentthe legacy of war and the narrow hope of redemptionwill draw each of them to a painful reckoning.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Both of Howard Bahr's previous books were New York Times Notable Books. He lives in Fayetteville, Tennessee.
Read an Excerpt
The Citadel of djibouti stood on the old site of Frye's Tavern, in a yard barren of grass even in deep summer. This Christmas eve, cigar smoke swirled in wraiths around the blackened lamp chimneys. A wood fireplace blazed and crackled at one end, and a stove burned red-hot at the other, but the drafts were numerous, and the few patrons sat around with their coats and hats on. Not even the drafts, however, could clear the place of a generation's tobacco smoke and the smells of fried meat and spilled beer. Under the floor, a dead tomcat smoldered in decay; the patrons knew it was a cat, for L. W. Thomas had told them so. Other, more subtle smells lingered: the residue of hard times, of tired and sweated men, some of them gone forever, some of them here now.
L. W. Thomas himself leaned on the bar, a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, reading the Police Gazette. Two country men discussed in whispers the recent murders along Yellow Leaf Creek, where a family were butchered in their sleep. A pale, malarial man wrapped in a greatcoat paced before the hot stove, shivering, arguing with a woman who was not there; who, in fact, had been dead since the previous summer.
In a corner, Cass Wakefield, trifling drunk, leaned back in his chair, fingers laced across his waistcoat, feet propped on Thomas's old black dog, which lay beneath the table. In the chair opposite, Lucian Wakefield, his head cradled on his arms, slept his restless, dreamful sleep.
Cass would like to be someplace else, but there was no place else. Certainly the house on Algiers Street where he and Lucian lived would be no improvement. Still, they had to go home sooner or later. Cass said, "Lucian," and poked at the boy. (Lucian was thirty-three, but Cass still thought of him as a boy.) Lucian made no response, but the dog stirred resentfully under the table. Thomas folded his magazine and slapped at a fat winter fly, of which there were a good many in the tavern due to the cat down below. This was Christmas, then, in the Year of Grace 1884. In most details, it resembled last Christmas, and, in fact, every one since 1865. Cass leaned back in his chair again and thought of the shepherds who watched in the fields of Bethlehem on the first night of Our Lord. They were lonesome, dirty, homesick, trifling drunk maybe, with no idea that soon they would be at the center of a holy hour, witnesses to time in its shifting. Then the angels came from on high andchanged everything. Cass wished some angels would show up at the Citadel of Djibouti, but he considered that unlikely.
"Lucian," he said again, and this time the boy looked up. "Merry Christmas," said Cass.
Lucian blinked and rubbed his eyes. He was thin of face and body, and his hair was shot with gray, and his clothes seemed to hang off him.
"It's a fresh new day," said Cass.
Lucian peered groggily about. "I do not see that it is so God damned fresh."
Cass had to agree. He could remember little of the year behind, only a blur of filthy railway coaches, tired hotel rooms, dim saloons, worry, emptiness — and the year ahead seemed to offer no other prospects. In this sacred hour, he could remember no single good thing that had happened: not to him, not to Lucian, not to L. W. Thomas, not to anyone else he knew. It was a God damned sacrilege, he decided, to be unable to remember any single good thing. Something was bound to happen, some change that would set them right. Cass pushed his chair back and walked to the bar.
L. W. Thomas said, "What's the matter with you?"
Cass propped his foot on the rail. The smoke burned his eyes, and he rubbed at them, feeling the grit. "I'm damned if I know," he said.
Thomas said, "Well, I will tell you. It's Christmas eve. On Christmas eve, a man feels real good, or he feels like owl shit, and there is no in- between, and the choice is not yours to make. There you have it."
"Right," said Cass. All at once, the smoke and heat and whiskey — and the various smells of the tavern — began to dizzy him. He felt sick, felt as if he were falling into a deep black hole. "Right," he said again. He lifted his hand to Thomas and turned, moving quickly. Lucian was asleep again, but Cass dared not stop for him. He stumbled through the door, shut it behind, and made it to the porch railing before he lost his supper.
Cass waited until the cold air cleared his head before he risked movement. A lantern hung smoking and guttering on the doorjamb, the globe blackened so that it offered no light at all. Cass turned the wick down until the flame went out, then looked around at the windless night. The world was illumined by starlight, shrouded in the moon. He went down the steps and for a moment stood dazzled in the middle of the barren yard. All across heaven were the strewn stars burning. Across the road, a grove of cedars huddled like fat mourners. If you stared long enough, they seemed to move, one of the tricks of night.
He set off down the road, trying not to look at the cedars, for they always reminded him of the Stones River battle, where the field was full of cedars, brittle with ice. At Stones River, the cedars had broken up the line, and the blood on the grass was frozen like some strange confection. At last, he came to the first street lamp on the square and stood under it for a moment to consider the scene before him. He had forgotten the Christmas tree on the courthouse yard; it was ablaze with candles now, and people were gathered around it singing, their voices rising to the stars. Others were coming from church, walking by families, the children glad to be up so late — for some, this was the first midnight they had ever seen abroad — and glad for Christ mas. Presently the courthouse bell began to toll, and all the bells in all the churches, and the bells of all the switch engines in the yard, and the sawmill whistle blew.
Cass did not care to join these revelers. Their easy joy was oddly repulsive to him, the thought of idle conversation unbearable. He slipped behind the buildings on the east side, where it was dark and quiet. The alley was full of rats, busy among ash bins and garbage, but they paid him little notice. Orion was climbing over the cotton gin, the icehouse, the ramshackle houses of Negroes — over the dark buildings behind which Cass moved in shadow. Finally the buildings ran out, and the mud of the alley flowed into the deeper mud of the Pontotoc Road.
He stopped and waited while a dray horse and a slide went by. The driver stood on the slide with his reins, and around him sat a dozen children bundled to the eyes, singing of Good King Wenceslas. One of the children saw him and waved; Cass slipped back into the darkness and perched on a barrel of ashes and let them pass, and watched others pass homeward, and listened as the bells died away one by one. Finally the streets were empty, quiet, the street lamps burning for no one — but still he did not cross the Pontotoc Road.
He fell asleep presently and was a little on his way to freezing to death when Lucian appeared out of the shadows. Lucian, too, had come through the alley, though no one was left on the square to see him stumbling drunk, muttering to himself: a thin, angular man with a drawn face, scarf thrown over his shoulder, hat askew, with ragged gloves and muddy breeches like some minor character in Dickens. Cass woke shivering to the sound of breaking glass — Lucian had thrown a bottle at the rats — and saw the boy lurch past, then stop at the edge of the road, where he stood swaying, moving his hands.
"What are you doing?" said Cass.
"Jesus H. Christ," said Lucian, and turned so quickly that he fell backward into the mud. He sat up and fumbled at his coat pockets a moment, then looked at Cass. "What you mean, scaring me half to death?"
Cass climbed down from the barrel, slowly, for the cold had stiffened him. He found a bottle and smashed it against the bricks. "Go ahead," he said. "Cross the road, chicken shit."
"Fuck you," said Lucian. "I don't want to cross it."
Cass threw another bottle. He found he liked the sound of the breaking glass and the way the rats scurried. "You are God damned pitiful," he said.
Lucian wiped at the mud on his black frock coat. He rose to his knees and pointed up the road. "Something is coming," he said.
"All that is over with," said Cass. "Now, get up." Cass put out his hand, but Lucian knocked it away. "Lemme 'lone," he said, and scooted behind the ash barrel.
"What are you doin'?"
"Lemme alone," said Lucian. "I am stayin' here till daylight."
"You are not," said Cass.
"My brain hurts," Lucian said. "My brain is going to explode." He pressed his hands to his head. "Stand back 'less you want to get splattered."
"I won't cross that road till daylight, by God," said the other. He drew his pistol and cradled it in his lap. Lucian always carried a pistol, as Cass did, and most of the men in Cumberland.
"Suit yourself," said Cass. He went down the alley and collected an armful of old rags, scrap lumber, a half-filled can of kerosene. He built a fire in an old coal scuttle, a good, hot blaze. The boy had fallen asleep. "You are a God damned idiot," Cass told him. Cass dragged the boy close to the fire, then sat down against the wall to wait the coming of day. In a little while, he grew bored and began to shoot at rats with his own pistol, which woke up Lucian, who also began to blaze away at the rats. Presently, they shot a possum that wandered by. The noise was deafening in the closed space of the alley. As they were reloading, Lucian said, "Cass, something has got to happen."
"You mean like angels descending from on high?"
"I don't know what I mean," said Lucian. "Only, something has got to happen." He thought for a moment. "I got to feel something, or I will die."
Cass said, "It is better not to feel anything." He aimed and fired and missed his rat. The creatures did not seem to mind being fired upon, but went on as usual.
"That is only the whiskey talking," said Lucian.
Presently Mister Will Casper, the constable, appeared with orders to cease and desist. Cass argued that everybody fired pistols on Christmas eve.
"Well, it's Christmas morn now," Casper said, "and all decent people are abed, and we will have no more shooting." Casper had a jug, however, and the three of them used it to pass the time until the sky began to lighten. They talked about frying up the possum for breakfast. It wouldn't be the first time.
The bells woke her. The courthouse bell, church bells, locomotive bells, all tolled midnight, heralding the Christ child. She thought of what the old ones said about the cattle; how, at this hour, they would kneel in reverence in their pens and stables. She thought of the railroad men stopping their work to listen; children abed, sleepless, listening; birds bowing their heads; the scattered stars for an instant winking brighter. The bells pealed across the cold, vast night, brushing the rooftops, the fields, and the barren woods beyond; she could believe, in that moment, there was no meanness anywhere, except that she was dying.
The bells ceased after a time, and the silence closed around her. She held to it, and to the darkness, as sacred things. She burrowed under the featherbed, drew her legs up, and floated in the darkness, counting back from the hour. Fourteen hours since Doctor Culver Craddock said, "I will offer no vain hope. I reckon you are strong enough to stand the truth." Truth was what he gave her then, and she was strong enough anyway to go on sitting upright. She even let him take her hand — good Doctor Craddock, who in forty years, since he came to Cumberland, had never misled her. She knew he was right, of course, but knowing was not the same as believing.
Alison Sansing was not afraid of dying. Everybody had to do it. People went on and on about birth and what a miracle it was, but it wasn't any miracle; it happened every day, every hour; no living thing, not even the least, came into life without it. Death was the same. A little jolt and you woke again, like waking to life, and there were all the myriads who had gone before, waiting for you. That wasn't so bad, was it! they would say.
Father, brother — they would be there, loosed from the sorry, rain-filled grave where Cass Wakefield had laid them long ago. She would see them all again. Everything that had happened, all the years without them, would be forgotten, burned away like the fog on Leaf River winter mornings.
No, not forgotten, she told herself. The fog was made more beautiful by its passing, like flags in the spring; like the last drone of cicadas in a dying summer; like the brief yellow of hickories, the purple of sweetgums, in the fall. You loved most the things that passed away, that you couldn't hold to, no matter how much you loved them.
Not long after the war, some well-meaning soul had given her a popular book about the afterlife. In the book, all the dead were happy, the terror of life forgotten. They were gathered in a green, shaded garden scented of lilacs, drinking tea, and chatting, pausing now and then to welcome a new arrival likewise pink and new, carrying no baggage. She wondered how the author, never having been dead herself, could know these things. And what did the dead, without memory, have to talk about? In any event, she had read only a few pages, then thrown the book away. If heaven was nothing but tea parties, she would just as soon not go. And if the terror was forgot, so too must be the good, fine things that made living bearable, that made you want to stay.
Nothing, not even hell, could be worse than forgetting what you loved. Maybe that's what hell is, she thought. Where the soul is only itself, lost, and no marks to navigate by.
She had tried long ago to imagine the violence that came down on Father and Perry, and she wondered if they remembered it and how it would seem to them. She had given up trying after a while, for nothing in her experience, nor even in the soldiers' telling, could frame it. Cass told her once, swore to her once, that they felt no hurt, that Death came quick among the smoke when the blood was up and all reason vanished. They felt no hurt, Cass said; flesh and blood gone to vapor, mind and heart to spirit, all whisked away before pain could reach them. Cass was sick that day he sat in her front room, his hat on his knee, and told her how they could not have suffered. His hands shook, his face was still pale and thin, and he could not keep still but sat and paced, sat and paced again, up and down the stifling room that smelled of ashes and dust. Father, brother — they had lived well and died with honor — Cass promised they had died with honor. He paced through a slant of August sunlight, while she sat with hands folded, listening to his sad voice. He said how, after the battle, he had seen them put in the ground side-by- each with only a board to mark their resting, in a muddy backyard near the place where they fell. It was pretty bad, he said. I will not lie to you. She believed what he said then, and believed it still.
She drew tighter into a ball under the featherbed, ran her hand up and down the shanks of her legs — still pretty, the hair and skin still soft, though she could feel the veins. She could smell the glycerin and rosewater on her hands. With her fingers, she traced the little swell of her breasts, probing for the knots. "How long till I believe this?" she asked aloud.
The lamp had long since guttered out; the jalousies were closed; the fire on the hearth was only a dull red blur. In the shadows of her room huddled the comforting shapes of wardrobe and dresser, chair and table and washstand. The world was in order, hushed and peaceful, with nothing to harm.
She knew she would believe when the pain started. Doctor Craddock had given her a bottle of Black Draught for when it did; she had put it deep in the cedar chest in the attic. He had given her some quinine, too, to thin her blood, because she demanded it.
Through the flannel nightgown she could feel the knots, felt soreness but no real pain. They were just clots, was all — nothing to be upset about. She had taken a big spoon of quinine before bed, and already the knots were smaller, she thought. The doctor had said, "Maybe in Memphis, maybe in New Orleans —"
"What?" she demanded. "What could they do?"
Culver Craddock wiped his brow, though it was cool in the cluttered room where they sat. "They have surgeons," he said. "They can ... they could remove —"
"No," she said, disgusted by the notion. "No, I will not have that."
Excerpted from "The Judas Field"
Copyright © 2006 Howard Bahr.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
About this Guide
The following author biography and list of questions about The Judas Field are intended as resources to aid individual readers and book groups who would like to learn more about the author and this book. We hope that this guide will provide you a starting place for discussion, and suggest a variety of perspectives from which you might approach The Judas Field.
1. How does Cass's faith evolve throughout this story, beginning at his mother's deathbed and ending with Queenolia and Alison's burial? What role does religion play for the other characters?
2. Is it possible to hold Cass and the others accountable for the violence they do during the war, for example burning down the house and beating up the owners (pp. 136-138), or for the violence at the end of the story? Is there any sense of right and wrong during the battle scenes in the novel?
3. "I got to feel something," Lucian says to Cass early in the novel, "or I will die." What does he mean? Is Cass right that "It is better not to feel anything"? Are the two men as numb as they think they are? Are there times when numbness is desirable, when it helps to save people?
4. How would you describe the novel's portrayal of organized religion? How well do the ministers and priests handle the effects of the war on the men and women they tend to in the story?
5. What does Cass try to teach Lucian as a young man? Do you think Cass is a good influence on the boy?
6. How do the battle scenes in this novel compare to those you've read in other novels or non- fiction accounts? How do these scenes affect the way you think about war?
7. Are the men better of for having returned to Franklin? How does it affect them differently to see the ditch again, to relive the battle? Are they better off? Is Alison?
8. Why does Cass force Alison to imagine the battle (pp. 209-210)?
9. Are the Death Angel and Rufus simply figures of Cass's imagination? If so, what drives him to create each one? What purpose do they serve in his mind?
10. How does the author use naturethe sky, the sun, trees, birds, insectsto supplement the description of his characters' experience? How do the soldiers in the novel perceive their surroundings differently than those, like Alison, who have not seen battle?
11. "She could never understand what honor meant beyond the word itself", the author writes of Alison (pg. 238). What role does honor play in the novel, in the behavior of Cass, Lucian, Roger, and the other soldiers? What do you think honor means in the context of a chaotic battle like the one at Franklin?
12. Look at Cass's musings about God and free will on the last page. Do you agree with his assessment? What in Cass's experiences has led him to this hopefulness?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
First Line: Cass Wakefield was born in a double-pen log cabin just at the break of day, and before he was twenty minutes old, he was almost thrown out with the bedclothes. Since that rather inauspicious beginning, Cass Wakefield piloted steamboats, married, was a soldier, and became a widower. For the last twenty years, he's lived in Cumberland, Mississippi, and been a traveling salesman selling Colt revolvers. Alison Sansing lost her father and brother in the war, and for the last twenty years, she's lived in that big old house in Cumberland alone. Having just been told by her doctor that she has cancer and hasn't long to live, the thing Alison fears most is being buried in the family cemetery alone. She asks Cass Wakefield to accompany her to Franklin, Tennessee-- where her father and brother died in battle-- to recover their bodies and bring them back to Cumberland to be buried at home. Having fought in the Battle of Franklin himself, Cass has no desire whatsoever to return to the area, but he does... for Alison. Two friends who fought alongside Cass travel with the pair, and the closer they all get to Franklin, the more vivid their memories become. I chose to read this book because my great-great-great-grandfather fought and died in the Battle of Franklin, and the fact that James Henry Brown's uniform was blue not gray, doesn't make a bit of difference. Bahr sets his scene very carefully. The pace felt like a steam locomotive pulling out of the station and gradually gaining speed. A profound sense of sadness, of sorrow, for all that was lost, for all the lives that were forever changed, permeates the book. At one point Alison asks what the fighting was like, and the response is one of the best I've ever read about the impossibility of telling someone who wasn't there what it's like to fight in the midst of the bloodbath of battle: "If we live a thousand years, won't ever find a way to tell it." He coughed , and turned his head to spit. "In a battle, everything is wrong, nothing you ever learned is true anymore. And when you come out-- if you do-- you can't remember. You have to put it back together by the rules you know, and you end up with a lie. That's the best you can do, and when you tell it, it'll still be a lie." The book's sadness turns to heartbreak as the men arrive in Franklin and try to locate where the bodies were buried so long ago. Yes, things have changed, but there are still roads, still buildings, that unleash an overwhelming tide of memory and loss. It's some of the best writing about war I've ever read because Bahr never once lets graphic carnage carry his story. It's a wonderful thing when a writer credits his readers with enough imagination and feeling to fill in the blanks for themselves. Cass Wakefield is a beautifully realized character. One I will long remember, as I will remember The Judas Field. I come away from the book feeling that I now have a tiny idea of what my ancestor went through in that time and place so long ago.
Remarkable book. Such eloquence rarely seen these days. Very disturbing battle scenes.
In 1885 Cass Wakefield was asked by his longtime friend Alice Sansing to accompany her to retrieve the bodies of her father and brother. Alice is dying of cancer and, having never married, suddenly is afraid of being alone forever in the cemetery. Her father and brother had fought in the civil war in the local regiment and died at the Battle of Franklin, Tennessee in 1864. Cass, the man she had hoped to marry before he married another, and Roger Lewellen, another local man, served in the same regiment and had helped to bury the Sansing men after the battle. On the journey north from their home in Cumberland, MS, Cass is thrust back into his past and must confront his memories of the war and his actions in it.A gloomy, morose book. Very vivid descriptions of the conditions of the soldiers during the war, and of the horror of the battlefield. Also realistically shows the lingering effects of war on the lives of the soldiers, even 20 years later.My two favorite quotes: "When we finally have enough mistakes to learn from, it's time to die" (pg 240) and "Without the possibility of defeat, the victories would have no meaning" (pg 292).Even though the overall tone of the story is somber, I think that Bahr avoided being too heavy-handed. The descriptions are done in a matter-of-fact fashion, forcing the reader to acknowledge the ugliness that is war, and the inevitable mortality of each one of us.
This book took a while to read...I think more because I knew how it would evoke such sadness at the end more than anything else. Although I usually do not read this genre of book, The Judas Field is a new favorite for me. I love the way the characters are given so many different dimensions. A very good book.
Last night was a sad night for me. It wasn't totally due to the sadness that Howard Bahr is able to evoke but partly because I have come to the end of his trilogy. The Black Flower, part one, remains near the top of my list of favorite books of all time. It very well could be number one. The Year of Jubilo was a worthy follow up. It wasn't on the level of The Black Flower in my opinion, but it was still a damn good book. I gave The Black Flower 5*'s and Jubilo 4*'s. The Judas Field is on par with The Black Flower. It is just magnificent. There are pages that I would re-read many times and each time I felt the same wave of emotion, understanding, and sympathy that I had the first time. The soldier's referred to death in a spirtual and physical form. They referred to death as The Death Angel. I would like to share a passsage:"The Death Angel was everywhere waiting, counting them over and over, eager to subtract. He marched beside them in the ranks; he moved among them when they slept, peering into their faces. He was eager for the little slip, the moment of weakness or forgetfulness. He courted them all. "......" So they grieved, and more; they were harried by guilt. That, too, was the work of the Death Angel, who chose one and let another live, who dropped this one by the roadside while his comrade walked on. The soldiers traveled always in the company of those who were gone, who were transformed by memory into better men -- gentler, funnier, braver men -- than they might have been in life. The Death Angel reminded the living always of how much promise was lost, and how, beside it, their own possibilities shrank to no consequence. He whispered how they could never do enough, be enough now to be worthy of the gift of life. " And yet, are you not relieved?" he would whisper. "Tell yourself truly -- are you not glad it was him and not you?" The soldiers might speak of tomorrow, of what good deeds they would do, of redemption or love or promise or hope, but deep in their hearts, they knew it to be a lie, a tale they told themselves to beguile their shame. "Treat yourself folks. Treat yourself to Howard Bahr.
First Line: Cass Wakefield was born in a double-pen log cabin just at the break of day, and before he was twenty minutes old, he was almost thrown out with the bedclothes.Since that rather inauspicious beginning, Cass Wakefield piloted steamboats, married, was a soldier, and became a widower. For the last twenty years, he's lived in Cumberland, Mississippi, and been a traveling salesman selling Colt revolvers.Alison Sansing lost her father and brother in the war, and for the last twenty years, she's lived in that big old house in Cumberland alone. Having just been told by her doctor that she has cancer and hasn't long to live, the thing Alison fears most is being buried in the family cemetery alone. She asks Cass Wakefield to accompany her to Franklin, Tennessee-- where her father and brother died in battle-- to recover their bodies and bring them back to Cumberland to be buried at home.Having fought in the Battle of Franklin himself, Cass has no desire whatsoever to return to the area, but he does... for Alison. Two friends who fought alongside Cass travel with the pair, and the closer they all get to Franklin, the more vivid their memories become.I chose to read this book because my great-great-great-grandfather fought and died in the Battle of Franklin, and the fact that James Henry Brown's uniform was blue not gray, doesn't make a bit of difference. Bahr sets his scene very carefully. The pace felt like a steam locomotive pulling out of the station and gradually gaining speed. A profound sense of sadness, of sorrow, for all that was lost, for all the lives that were forever changed, permeates the book. At one point Alison asks what the fighting was like, and the response is one of the best I've ever read about the impossibility of telling someone who wasn't there what it's like to fight in the midst of the bloodbath of battle: "If we live a thousand years, won't ever find a way to tell it." He coughed , and turned his head to spit. "In a battle, everything is wrong, nothing you ever learned is true anymore. And when you come out-- if you do-- you can't remember. You have to put it back together by the rules you know, and you end up with a lie. That's the best you can do, and when you tell it, it'll still be a lie."The book's sadness turns to heartbreak as the men arrive in Franklin and try to locate where the bodies were buried so long ago. Yes, things have changed, but there are still roads, still buildings, that unleash an overwhelming tide of memory and loss. It's some of the best writing about war I've ever read because Bahr never once lets graphic carnage carry his story. It's a wonderful thing when a writer credits his readers with enough imagination and feeling to fill in the blanks for themselves.Cass Wakefield is a beautifully realized character. One I will long remember, as I will remember The Judas Field. I come away from the book feeling that I now have a tiny idea of what my ancestor went through in that time and place so long ago.