R. E. Thomas’s novel Stonewall Goes West has enough red flags flying high above it that I should have steered clear a mile away: it is self published, it is alternative history, it is based on a highly improbable “what if,” and the cover sketch looks like it was drawn by a well-meaning relative or friend of the author, who could not say “no” when the sketch was offered.
But of course, I ignored the red flags and all the scorn that will be heaped upon me by more serious-minded colleagues who will surely brow-beat me for reading a piece of wild speculation.
I am glad I did. Thomas spun a darn good story, and read strictly as such, it will prove good entertainment for any Civil War buff who doesn’t take the book too seriously. Reading is allowed to be fun, after all.
Thomas’s premise is interesting if only because it seems so unconventional. What if Stonewall Jackson survived his wound at Chancellorsville? That in itself is nothing special to ponder–I hear that question all the time. But Thomas takes his answer in a wholly original direction.
Jackson does not make Gettysburg. He is still recuperating from his wound and his pneumonia (kudos to Thomas for not giving Jackson the superhuman healing powers of Wolverine). Once he does recover, though, he comes back in the fall of ’63 to help Confederates score a big win along Big Kettle Creek near Bristoe.
Once more, then, it’s victorious Jackson in the public eye as a hero at the very time when Confederate President Jefferson Davis is faced with his intractable problem of leadership in the west: the embattled Braxton Bragg or the uncooperative Joe Johnston? Jackson’s presence suddenly offers a third option, which Thomas explorers credibly.
Throwing Jackson into the colorful but less well-known cast of characters in the Western Theater proves interesting. Particularly effective is Thomas’s treatment of Bishop Leonidas Polk. Modern buffs love to hate the Fighting Bishop for his self-serving and stubborn tendency to disobey orders (not to mention his general incompetence). The politically deft Polk makes an especially smarmy villain in Thomas’s book because the God-fearing Jackson naïvely trusts Polk as a man of the cloth. Polk’s political scheming simmers underneath unheeded by his commander, which gives the book a surprising through-thread of dramatic tension.
I was less convinced by Thomas’s interpretation of Jackson, who seems conveniently more agreeable in this novel than he did when he was with the Army of Northern Virginia. Maybe Jackson would have learned a lesson from his Chancellorsville wounding—which makes for a convenient and necessary conceit for Thomas’s plot. When Thomas gets things actual facts wrong—the age of Jackson’s daughter, for instance, or the skill level of Jackson on a horse—it casts into doubt his entire understanding of Jackson’s character. Even alternative fiction, to be credible, has to stick to veracity.
But read solely as fiction, Thomas’ story is highly readable and highly entertaining. It does not plod along like a foot-weary infantryman low on rations the way, say, a Jeff Shaara novel might. Shaara could use a lesson on pacing from Thomas.
Stonewall Goes West, I discovered when I reached the end, is just the first in what will be a trilogy. Mother Earth, Bloody Ground, the trilogy’s second book, just came out a couple weeks ago. In the first book, Jackson man-handles James McPherson’s army, but by novel’s end, William Tecumseh Sherman has turned George Thomas’s army loose to cut through Georgia while Sherman masses another army in Nashville to counter Jackson’s threat. Mother Earth, Bloody Ground and its successor will presumably pit Jackson and Sherman against each other in middle Tennessee. The next time I want a well-spun yarn as brain candy, you can bet I’ll be pulling up a ringside seat for that match up.