The nearly insurmountable challenge of a 19th-Century novel

This post is a twofer. Two reviews for the price of one. This is because I have very little to say about the first novel I selected to fulfill the 19th-Century category of the 2016-17 Classics Challenge.

courage.jpgAfter living a month or so inside the head of the Rebels while reading “Gone With the Wind,” I thought I’d spend some time with the actual winners of the Civil War (though are there really any winners in war?) by reading Stephen Crane’s 1895 novel “The Red Badge of Courage.” I’d liked his short stories (especially “The Open Boat”) and was eager to read it.

I chose this book because it has been on my bookshelf for some 20 years and because it was short. It should have stayed on the bookshelf.

The opening of this short novel is quite beautiful and I looked forward to this story about a young volunteer who is scared shitless about war. Henry Fleming joined the Union army because he thought he would achieve glory, but what he has seen so far is just a helluva lot of sitting around.

“On the morrow, perhaps, there would be a battle, and he would be in it. For a time he was obliged to labor to make himself believe. He could not accept with assurance an omen that he was about to mingle in one of those great affairs of the earth,” Crain writes, perhaps expressing the feelings of every person about to enter battle. A little later: “It had suddenly appeared to him that perhaps in battle he might run. He was forced to admit that as far as war was concerned he knew nothing of himself.” Just lovely.

Of course, he runs, but this story isn’t about cowardice, it’s about how a boy discovers what kind of man he really is.

You’d think this was a slam-dunk for me: A personal story set amid a great event. And it’s short, too! But let me say that this book — despite being lauded for its realistic battle scenes and depictions of the horrors of war — was the biggest soporific I’ve read in years. I couldn’t make any traction. In two pages and I’d be asleep. Morning, noon or night, it didn’t matter. I could be hanging upside down in a freezing meat locker reading it and would still fall asleep. I finished, but only barely. Then, to ensure I didn’t miss anything, I read an online synopsis: Nope, got it all. And several catnaps, too.

But I was unfulfilled. So I read another 19th-Century novel, partly because I felt bad about not liking “Courage,” partly because I was being OCD and needed to fill in a gap and partly because it, too, was short.

scarlet.jpgA little more than a year ago, I was entirely captivated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” I chose it thinking it was the book that introduced Doyle’s groundbreaking character Sherlock Holmes. It wasn’t, which is why I decided to go back and read “A Study in Scarlet,” which was.

Here we meet Dr. Watson, an injured veteran of England’s war in Afghanistan, back home and looking for a roommate to make his meagre funds go farther. A friend knows of another down-on-his-luck man looking to share space but, he warns Watson, the dude’s a little crazy. They head over to a flat at 221B Baker Street and the rest, as they say, is history.

Watson is amazed by this eccentric man, Sherlock Holmes, and finds himself helping Sherlock simply because he has little else to do. Before long they are in the middle of a fascinating double murder investigation. Then, about halfway through the book they arrest the murderer. Wait, what?

In the second section of the novel, Doyle takes the reader to the western United States several years earlier when a man and a young girl are about to die of starvation in the desert. Then, as if by a miracle, they are rescued by an enormous wagon train of Mormons on their way to the promised land if anyone wants to call Utah that. While it seems jarring at first, a reader understands that this long (and intriguing) section will answer all questions about whodunit and why. It may be a bit ham handed, but it ultimately works.

Over the years this book has been controversial because of its depiction of Mormonism, which Doyle defended because he’d read unfavorable things about them in the newspapers. In later years, he reportedly apologized to the faith for painting them as kidnappers, vindictive killers and blackmailers.

I had just finished “Scarlet” and was doing research for this review when I saw that “Baskervilles” was actually the third novel featuring Holmes and Watson. So now I have to read “The Sign of the Four.” Then, I hope, my OCD will hibernate for a while. Eventually I will read “The Valley of Fear.” But not before I read the short stories. In order.

So many books…

Next up for the Classics Challenge 2016/17: A classic in translation. I have selected “The Black Tulip,” a short novel by Alexandre Dumas. My wife is reading it and she has good things to say about it. Onward!


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