Mann, Jeff. “Purgatory: A Novel of the Civil War”, Lethe Press, 2012.
North vs. South?
Jeff Mann is one of my favorite authors whether he writes prose or poetry. He wonderfully provides the emotions of what he writes and he pulls us into his writing with ease.”Purgatory” his new novel takes us back to the American Civil War and we get the stories of two soldiers on opposite sides who become drawn to each other. One of them, Ian, is a Southerner who is tired of war and has seen too many men killed and injured and to make matters worse, his uncle is a commanding officer who has caused so much of the bloodshed. The other soldier, Drew is a Northerner who has become a prisoner of war by the Confederates and is forced into martyrdom as a representative of the result of the sins of his army. The two men are drawn together because of each other’s bravery, demeanor and spirit and they fall in love as captor and captive, warden and prisoner.
Mann gives us two wonderful characters here and they are perfectly drawn so that we really get to know them. From the moment we meet Ian we see that he is a strong and emotional person and I found myself totally engrossed with his character especially when he sees Drew captures and thinks about the feelings that quickly develop. Drew as prisoner is just what we would expect and as the two men get to know each other so do we.
The love story shows us the horrors of war and what happens when war causes a breakdown of rules of behavior. Ian and his uncle stopped transferring prisoners of war to prison and Sarge, Ian’s uncle prefers brutalization of them to prison. We learn that Ian had already lost one lover to the sadistic behavior of his uncle and now he is charged with keeping Drew alive just so he can torture him. Drew and Ian become intimately involved (as much as conditions would allow them to do). Ian finds ways to save Drew.
What Jeff Mann has done so well here is to describe the horrors of war from the smallest—lice and filth to the largest—murder and we see how men harden as they live through the trials of a war. Sarge is so sadistic and he hates anything that has to do with the north and we see him as graphically violent who is a true homophobe.
The major conflict here is between duty to the cause and the erotic. Conflicts are complex but can be dealt with and the characters are as complex. Ian Campbell and Drew Conrad meet during the last month of the war and they fall quickly in love. Ian is forced to choose between his responsibility to his country and the way he feels about Drew. It does not take much to guess which he chooses and while things may not be so easy for Drew and Ian, they at least have each other. I understand a sequel is in the work so that we will be able to get the entire picture when the war is over.