Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell
“Our mode of war was an irregular one. We were as likely to be guided by an aged farmer’s breathless recounting of a definite rumor, or by the moods of our horses, as we were by logic. It was a situation where logic made no sense. So we slouched about in wooded areas, our eyes on main roads and cow paths, watching for our foe to pass in reasonable numbers.
They often did.”
The reissue last month of Woe to Live On, Daniel Woodrell’s 1987 coming-of-age novel set during the American Civil War, is cause for celebration. A Missourian born and bred, Woodrell has a dedicated cult following, but, oddly, seems to be better known and appreciated outside the States than within, and has been described as "one of the best-kept secrets in American literature.”
As anyone who’s discovered Woodrell’s long out-of-print Woe to Live On and been blown away by it will tell you, Lordy, Lordy, the man can write up a storm!
This is the universal tragedy of civil war, the particular madness of a conflict that pits neighbours, friends and families against each other, as seen through the eyes of Jake Roedel, a teenager fighting with a band of Bushwhackers (mounted Confederate guerillas) in the Kansas-Missouri borderlands. Several of the characters are actual historical figures, like William C. Quantrill, Cole Younger and Senator Jim Lane. Black John Ambrose, the leader of Jake's band, was clearly modelled on “Bloody Bill” Anderson, and Jake's friend, the black freedman, Holt, is a composite of those African-Americans who, surprising as it may seem, did in fact fight with the Confederate raiders.
Politically incorrect, unrevisionist and understated in style, Woe to Live On is brutal, shocking and full of random, escalating violence and moral ambiguities. There's no high-flown honour, no good guys and no winners here. It’s also sheer crazed, adrenaline-fuelled adventure; the camaraderie and knife-edge exhilaration of war that have drawn many a young man to arms throughout the ages.
Woodrell is heir to a backwoods bardic storytelling tradition that gives Woe to Live On a timeless, dark folkloric/hero quest quality. Its sensibility is pure nineteenth century, though, thanks to the clever use of frontier vernacular that's earned this story the tag "Huck Finn in Hell"; folksy but smart as a whip and spiked with wickedly droll, deadpan humour that lurks, waiting to bushwhack the unsuspecting reader, and serves to leaven Jake’s heartbreaking yet ultimately hopeful tale.
“I had us steered toward a new place to live, and we went for it, this brood of mine and my dark comrade, Holt. This new spot for life might be but a short journey as a winged creature covers it, that is often said, but, oh, Lord, as you know, I had not the wings, and it is a hot, hard ride by road.”
Verdict? Tragic, disturbing, poignant, picaresque and subversively funny - the work of a truly gifted writer who takes no prisoners.
Woe to Live On is a cracker. Here’s hoping this time round it gets the wider recognition it deserves.
Note: This novel was the basis of Ang Lee's excellent movie "Ride With the Devil", and the book was released in 1999 as a tie-in edition under the movie's title.
My review at Historical Novels Info:
The Lawrence Massacre
Artist: Ethel Megafan
Daniel Woodrell: Ozarks Daredevil. Article by John Williams for The Independent
Last edited by annis; 08-25-2012 at 07:13 PM.