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CARPE LIBRUM: Into the wilderness of Appalachia

Like the difference between a ghost story and a story with a ghost in it, “Fallen Land” is not so much a book of historical fiction about the Civil War as a book that has the Civil War in it.

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, John F. Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Eno, Bull City), it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literature, publishing and the importance of communicating a truthful story on our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s new weekly book column. Each week I will dissect a current title with an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum, but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many North Carolina writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world as well. 

Fallen Land
by Taylor Brown
St. Martin’s Press 2016, 273 pages

The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757
by James Fenimore Cooper
HC Carey and I Lea, 1826

Taylor Brown’s new year began with the release of his debut novel, “Fallen Land,” from St. Martin’s Press. Set in the South in 1864 it follows the entangled lives of two people who find themselves and each other in truly unimaginable circumstances.

Meet Callumn, at 15 his résumé includes riding with unsanctioned Confederate Calvary regiment and stealing horses. His mission in life becomes to save Ava, the orphaned daughter of a doctor. Their story of flight through the Appalachian mountains parallels with their pursuers and Sherman’s Army marching toward the sea.

fallenlandThe question at the heart of Brown’s book is: If two people lost absolutely everything and were cast into the wilderness, could they depend upon each other to survive? The death-defying beauty of the Appalachian mountains makes an incredible backdrop for a story like this. Anyone who has actually spent time living in the wilderness there can feel the genuine awe of its beauty seeping through the page. There is a careful understanding how everything in the wild could be fatal, from extreme temperatures to actual land giving way (not to mention potentially deadly encounters with inhabitants, human or otherwise).

I couldn’t help but be reminded of James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans.” Though the plots differ—“Fallen Land” is about two people fleeing and fighting for their lives, and “The Last of the Mohicans” chronicles a small band in the wilderness—they lean nicely upon each other. Both books are firmly set in a dangerous landscape whose inhabitants have murderous intent.

Cooper wrote “The Last of The Mohicans” 69 years after the events of the French and Indian wars occurred. For a young man growing up in the area, the  captivating tales resonated keenly with his world view. Hawkeye, the hero of the “Leatherstocking Tales”—which include “The Last of the Mohicans,” “The Pathfinder,” “The Deerslayer,” “The Pioneers,” and “The Prairie”—is the unusual, yet successful hero of Cooper’s books. (Trivia: He also is the source of the name for Hawkeye Pierce in “MASH” by Richard Hooker, which later became a famed TV show, so it is no surprise his cohort in crime is “Trapper” John McIntyre, another reference to Cooper.)

Hawkeye exists in a between and outside state: Though white he was raised by the Delaware tribe. His foster family provides him a grounding, but not a fortress against all pain and hatred. Brown’s Callum shares this otherness: Though he is white, he is Irish and has no grounding in America or the war that rages around him. He’s too young to be considered a real soldier by the men he travels with, but he is old enough to be worth killing for blood money. The enemies of Cooper’s characters are Native Americans, though the real heroes beyond the white leads are also Native Americans. Brown skirts in and out of the issue of emancipated slaves, making their characters more bewildering to Callum and Ava than malevolent. Mystifying, and more frightened than frightening, former slaves dart in and out of the narrative, while a former slave tracker turns his attention to the two fugitive teenagers.

In both books, the object is to make a journey to a place of safety in an unsafe world—to believe that once it is achieved, a normal life of some sort can commence. Brown moves us at a relentless pace, and Callum and Ava’s desperation ratchets up, as does the pace of storytelling. Cooper, on the other hand, wanders us through endless circles in the forest, and visits multiple villages and ambushes. The scenery is such that readers are just as lost as characters—endless in this vast expanse of American wilderness. Brown actually moves his characters forward at a pretty remarkable clip: They have limited stores and few opportunities to replenish. If they don’t keep going, they will die from starvation, dehydration or their pursuers. There is no dallying for these two. They make that mistake once. The lesson is painful—a memorable one the reader will ruminate on days after finishing the book.

Like the difference between a ghost story and a story with a ghost in it, “Fallen Land” is not so much a book of historical fiction about the Civil War as a book that has the Civil War in it. Callum and Ava are apolitical, unaffiliated to anyone or anything other than each other and their own survival.

Rather than trying to tell the story of two ideologies, Brown tells the story of a greater truth: giving a meaningless life purpose in a time of ultimate tumult. He and Cooper share a vision of the journey, and the American wilderness as the backdrop for the human psyche: In such ultimate wildness we find our true humanity.

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