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Downward to a Sunless Sea

Falconer evokes loss, camaraderie in historical work


Writers of novels are drawn to the history, secrets and chronicles of people past. Most novelists seem to tackle a historical event or approach at least once, and with The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers (Soft Skull Press, June 2006) Delia Falconer throws her hat into the ring with an imagined portrait of the last days of Frederick Benteen, a real-life survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn whose reputation in history has changed somewhat over the decades.

Though modern historians more or less view Benteen as a calm and competent commander, his actions during Custer's last stand, which saved most of his battalion and that of another officer who was not as capable under fire as Benteen, gained a fair amount of rebuke during his life. His military career continued apace--including being brevetted a brigadier general--but public opinion was uneasy about him for many years. It's this unease that frames and powers Falconer's delicate examination of memory.

As the novel opens, Benteen is in retirement in Georgia, living out his days quietly and reflecting on the circle of men he knew under Custer's command, when he receives a letter from an admirer in Chicago, who wants his help in setting the record straight about his service during the fateful battle. As Benteen recalls those days, sliding in and out of the past like a man exploring a house he's not been inside for many years, Falconer gently leads the reader through Benteen's life, giving equal weight to his long-standing marriage to his wife Kate and his days on the prairie with the men of the Seventh Cavalry. Despite the subject matter, Falconer writes with a soft touch, mixing subtly poetic images with the occasional burst of crudity and bawdy humor one might expect of hard-bitten military men in 1876.

Not all of Falconer's choices are as sure as her voice. The profanity and speech patterns of the men start feeling anachronistic, as do some of the references to devices that, while historically accurate, do not feel culturally accurate; a reference to a dirigible falls into this category, as do the profane tirades of Handsome Jack and existential musings of Star-Gazer. While the understated rhythm of the language makes for a beautiful read, it also makes the pacing somewhat languid, which is at odds with the inherent drama of its subject matter.

Surprisingly, Custer himself makes few appearances in the novel, either directly as a shadow standing over all the survivors' futures. His wife, Libbie, registers as a much stronger presence, actually standing in as the villain as much as any character does; at one point, the men, who Custer has ordered to kill Libbie should the Sioux capture them, discuss which lucky soul would get to kill her and how that person would do it. With The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, Falconer has written a novel about men during war that is nonetheless strongly feminine in tone and voice, and manages to make it work together smoothly. Clocking in at barely 150 pages, Falconer's novel is a beautiful, thoughtful examination of war and memory, and makes for a moving read.