Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany
Reviewed by Renny Christopher, English Dept., California State University at Stanislaus
Allan Gurganus' Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All (1989) is a book about a different war, the U.S. Civil War, and John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book set almost entirely in New Hampshire, but both of them are infused by the spirit of America's war in Viet Nam.
Gurganus' novel purports to be an oral history of Lucy Marsden, a woman 99 years old in 1984, and, as the title proclaims, the oldest Confederate widow. Her husband, "Captain" Marsden (he was really a teenaged private, but time and Southern myth promoted him to Captain as he got older) fought for the Confederacy, lost his closest friend in a stupid incident with a sniper, witnessed up close the death of a young Union soldier he had shot, and eventually walked home to find his family's plantation burned to the ground and his mother severely burned in that fire, and abandoned by the ex-slaves. "Cap" marries Lucy when he is 50 and she is 17.
The story of their marriage is the story of a family suffering from Marsden's untreated PTSD. The novel seems to be informed by a very contemporary sense of what it's like to be a veteran's wife--Gurganus might have done his research by reading Patience Mason and Aphrodite Matsakis. Cap stockpiles guns under their bed (all possible symbolism intended), drinks, neglects and abuses his wife and family, endlessly retells his war stories, is much more in love with Ned, his war-dead friend, than with his wife, and eventually is responsible for a devastating accident to one of the children.
Like a Viet Nam veteran in a rap group, Cap's therapy is talk; his first talk-partner is Ned's mother, who forces him to tell her everything. After that he keeps talking, but the talk is never therapeutic enough to exorcise his demons.
Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All is an example of the way that we now tend to look at our own Civil War refracted back through our more recent war. Ken Burns' TV series had touches of that, and Dances With Wolves has a lot of it. Like Dances, Confederate Widow has a totally ahistorical scene about surgeons operating to save a soldier's leg, rather than amputating it. Lucy says some very contemporary-sounding things about Cap's war experience: "He'd walked the whole way home from war. When oh when would he finally get here?" "Kept gallivanting off, jawing with other vets about the happy bloody olden times. I felt every inch the vet of the vet." And later, her supposed listener, the person taping her oral history, is "a veteran of the veteran's veteran."
Gurganus is a Navy veteran, who served on an aircraft carrier during the Viet Nam war. His novel is a sort of uncomfortable balance between being an oblique Viet Nam War novel, and an imaginative tour through his ancestral history. As he tells in an essay in The Iowa Review, he first conceived of the book when he was in the Navy, killing time in a library in San Diego, and found in old census records that his Southern family had owned slaves in the eighteenth century.
Confederate Widow is an interesting book in many ways, but it has problems, not the least of which is that, at 718 pages, it is too long by about half. Lucy is supposed to be a garrulous old woman, but the length of the book is wearing on even a dedicated reader. It is also marked by annoying historical inaccuracies: Morgan horses aren't 5-gaited, as Gurganus makes them, and he introduces Quarter horses before the breed was developed. Much worse, he has slave ships operating long after the outlawing of the slave trade in 1809.
But perhaps the worst weaknesses of the book lie in Gurganus' construction of race and gender. One of the major characters is Castalia, one of the Marsden family's former slaves. Gurganus imagines her story in fanciful and mythic ways, but she never really feels believable--not that she's a stereotype; rather, Gurganus goes so far to keep her from being one that he seems to create her out of whole cloth. And Lucy is not believable as a woman of her generation. She's always ambivalent about sex with Cap, which is believable, but she talks about it much too explicitly, as she does about homoerotic interludes with her childhood best friend and with Castalia. The problem is not that the events wouldn't happen, but rather that it's unbelievable that a Southern woman born in 1885 would talk about them so freely. Even one as garrulous as Lucy.
John Irving's novel is also long, 543 pages, perhaps too long for some readers, but I have always been an admirer of Irving's, so I'm willing to follow him for that length, and I especially love this novel. While it is only obliquely "about" the war, nonetheless I find it one of the most moving war novels I've read.
It is narrated by John Wheelwright, descendant of a patrician family in the small New Hampshire town of Gravesend (a stand-in for Exeter). John's best friend was Owen Meany, son of the family that ran a local, unsuccessful, granite quarry. Owen's main peculiarities are his voice--a "permanent scream"--and his sense of destiny. As a child he has a vision of his own gravestone, including the date of his death. Owen is a martyr; the text repeatedly sets him up as a Christ figure.
The narrative moves between John's reminiscences of his childhood and youth with Owen, and his current life in Canada, where he has gone, not as a draft dodger, but to renounce his American citizenship out of protest. In the narrative present, in the scenes in Canada, it becomes clear that he is a maladjusted man, suffering from some sort of PTSD, although he is not a veteran himself. The scenes set in the narrative past drive toward revelation of the event that will ultimately explain both Owen's and John's fates.
The novel explores issues of class--the Wheelwright family semi-adopts the working-class Owen and makes it possible for him, a brilliant student, to attend Gravesend Academy, where, of course, he gets into trouble. And it is Owen who ends up in the Army, John protected by his deferments first as a college student, then a graduate student. It also deals with issues of faith and unbelief, of war and absurdity.
As usual with Irving, the novel contains some brilliant moments of cultural observation. My favorite is the Madonna-like rock star whose videos always use news footage of the war in Viet Nam.
I do have two reservations about the novel, but both are closely connected to the ending, and I don't want to give it away. One concerns the ultimate explanation for Owen's voice, which is simply dumb and wrong; the other concerns a poor boy who is crazy and violent, and an unfortunate stereotype. But those are my only reservations.
Although Owen's fate is directly connected with the war, he never leaves the U.S. Usually I'm angered by novels and films that make the war be about America vs. itself, rather than about the war as fought in a country called Viet Nam, but this novel doesn't purport to be about the war; rather, it is about America and Americans, and American involvement in the war, which is a different subject. As such, it's a great book, and instead of telling you any more about it, I recommend that you read it.