Short Review: Fort Pillow, a Novel of the Civil War, by Harry Turtledove

Fort Pillow: A Novel of the Civil WarFort Pillow: A Novel of the Civil War by Harry Turtledove
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For the life of me, I’m not entirely certain why I’m following up a very disappointing Harry Turtledove book (Give Me Back My Legions! with another Harry Turtledove book, but everybody should have a second chance, so why not. I suspect one of the major failings of the previous novel was that very little was written about it by ancient historians, and the plot is pretty linear to stretch out over the course of 3 years. With Fort Pillow: A Novel of the Civil War, Turtledove sets up a very similar chain of events over a much shorter period, ending with a violent massacre, and set in a historical, as opposed to fantastical, setting. The Fort Pillow massacre was a nasty incident in backwater of the secondary theater of a nasty Civil War. I applaud Turtledove for taking up this subject and trying to humanize both sides of the story– the massacre can be one of those incidents that “Lost Cause” types and other apologists tend to gloss over or would just as soon forget. Fortunately, there are better sources for Turtledove to draw upon than he could muster for Give me Back My Legions! and I think that makes the resulting novel a much better read. The facts are what they are– a small fort on the banks of the Mississippi River was besieged by the South’s brilliant cavalry commander, Nathan Bedford Forrest. The inhabitants of the fort, a recently created black artillery company and a regiment of Union Sympathizer cavalry from Tennessee, were offered a chance to lay down arms. They chose to continue the fight and in the resulting sack of the fort, many of them were brutally murdered, white and black. Nobody is covered in glory by this story; I liked the morally ambiguous tone of the plot and characters. Turtledove mixes historical figures (Forrest, his principle staff officers, and the principle union leaders) with fictional characters and does his best to plug a few holes in the narrative that history can’t answer for. In general, I liked this novel far more than the last one and was reasonably engaged throughout. Turtledove’s rather annoying tendency for having each and every POV character stop to silently moralize about a greater issue in the middle of action or discussion is still there all it’s Glory. For example, a black character will be talking about an issue in the story with a white character, and he’ll go into a mental soliloquy about race relations in the United States, the institution of slavery, the meaning of freedom, and what Reconstruction might be like for the black character. Mr. Turtledove, stop doing this. People don’t talk or think this way in the middle of conversations.

In summary, not a bad read– better than some out of Turtledove lately by far. I appreciated reading a straight up historical novel from Turtledove. Not an alien lizard or time traveling racist was in sight.

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