It’s an unsettling time. The true meaning of that depends on where you live. For me, in England, every time I think about the news, my gut feels like it’s been dropped from the white cliffs of Dover. In Ukraine, it’s more literal. They are giving up their homes, losing their lives, facing bleak choices we’d believed consigned to the last century. It forces me to ask, why write about a war in America that started over one-hundred and sixty years ago? There is war now.
My workshop group met this week and my contribution was a chapter from Tigers in Blue. I’ve just completed the second draft of the final novel in the trilogy. When I sent them the chapter to review, Europe was still at peace. Two families have to think whether to stay or leave as Hood’s Confederate army crosses into Middle Tennessee and sweeps north. Their emotions are difficult, for each a mess of attachments to people, to place, to their own tangled pasts. Of course, as a writer you go hunting for those emotions, set scenes where they are most raw and exposed. What to leave and what to load in the wagon, a tearful farewell at the end of the drive, the sound of the first cannon in the distance. I’m attached to my characters, and in writing about those partings – some which I know to be fictionally final – I might get a little watery eyed. It’s all so safe from one-hundred and sixty years away.
I don’t have to imagine those scenes any more. I can watch them every day. Ukrainian men in Krakow, saying goodbye to their families and climbing onto an air-conditioned bus to go and fight. A bewildered mother with her children stepping down from a twenty-first century train in Berlin, nervously approaching a couple who hold up a sign: Room for three. Stay as long as you need. The forlorn wagons that clogged the river crossings in Tennessee are replaced by Hondas, Volkswagens, Skodas, but they’re still more composed of desperation than hope. In 1864 the Confederate government passed its third conscription act, for all men aged seventeen to fifty. The war was three years old by then. The Ukrainians asked men 18 to 60 to stay and fight within a matter of days from the Russian invasion.
Many people tried long and hard to avoid the American Civil War. They really did. It had been lining itself up for decades: conflicting vested interests, misaligned hopes and dreams, juxta opposed views of what constitutes a human being. In the end, those differences firmed up on either side of the young states’ borders and the fighting began. I’m not so sure the current war was as inevitable. It’s rooted in one sour man. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up over our incredulity that war could come to Europe in this century. That was a view based in hope. Where would we be if we planned based on despair? We should know evil when we see it though, whichever century it’s living in.
The workshop group were positive about the chapter, my friends citing how it chimed with the here and now. I’d rather it didn’t. I’d rather be left with the challenge of evoking the past, summoning it ghost-like into the reader’s mind to fade gently away when they close the cover and go about their peaceful lives. I’d rather be left to imagine.
Shire’s Union, books 1 and 2