Monday, July 25, 2011

Sherman’s Chaplain

David Bellin
Epigraph Publishing (2011)
ISBN 9781936940028
Reviewed by Olivera Baumgartner-Jackson for Reader Views

I started on the "Sherman's Chaplain" on a bright and very warm sunny afternoon, and for a moment I hesitated over my selection. Was I really going to read about something as depressing as the war on such a sparklingly beautiful day? A quick look at the cover made me hesitate even more… a huge cross, cavalry dashing in action, destruction... An undoubtedly beautifully executed cover, but… war and religion might just not be the best choice on a day like that. So I made a bargain with myself, one that I thought would be very easy to keep. I'll read the first chapter, and after that I will pick up something lighter for the rest of the day. Such a bargain should be very easy to keep, right?
When I looked up next, it was time to turn the lights on, and the book was finished. True, at 122 pages it was not a long one, but very seldom do I find myself so immersed in a book that I do not stop even for a cup of coffee. "Sherman's Chaplain," against my expectations, was one of the rare exceptions. It is difficult to put in words what was so completely magical about it, particularly in view of the aforementioned fact that I do not find war especially fascinating, at least not in a good way. But this was a gem of a book – compact, hard, but utterly beautiful, sparkly and "cut" with great precision. The tale of a young chaplain, freshly graduated from a seminary, who is quickly promoted from the post of a regimental chaplain to the post of a senior chaplain at the headquarters of General William Tecumseh Sherman, had so many elements of a great story! Where do I begin?
I absolutely loved the format of the book, written as a series of personal letters of the young chaplain, Ellis Brantley, to his "dearest Elaine." The tone of those letters was so genuine and so believable that it was extremely hard to accept the fact that this book, although based on the true history of Sherman's march from Atlanta to Savannah, was pure fiction. The letters described the daily events as well as the chaplain's musings and inner struggles in great detail, managing to bring to life the enormity of the task that Sherman's army was facing, the great disparity between the North and the South, the inhumanity (as well as great humanity!) of some of the people involved in the war, the daily struggle of staying true to oneself and true to one's religious beliefs and so much more. They were passages so lyrical that one nearly forgot one was reading about the war, and others so brutal that it was hard to keep reading. There were heroes and villains, but most importantly, there were extremely complex human beings. There was plenty of vivid dialogue, and possibly even more of quiet, contemplative passages. And time and again, there was this all-encompassing and overriding theme of humanity, in all its glory and with a plentiful dose of guts, spilled and otherwise.
You can read "Sherman's Chaplain" for its great story, for the beautiful language, as a religious rumination or as an exercise in history. Whatever you are looking to find in it, is most probably there.