Coal Black Horse Author:Olmstead, Robert Amazon.com Review — The Civil War has provided the backdrop for several authors in recent years: Michael Shaara, Robert Hicks, E.L. Doctorow, Howard Bahr, and Charles Frazier, to name a few. Robert Olmstead can take his place among the best of them with this stirring tale of a 14-year-old boy's loss of innocence as he follows the horrors of war.
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The boy is Robey Childs, sent by his mother to bring his father home from the War. She has "the sight," and when she "sees" that General Thomas Jackson is dead, she tells Robey "Thomas Jackson has been killed... There's no sense in this continuing... This was a mistake a long time before we knew it, but a mistake nonetheless. Go and find your father and bring him back to his home." She sews a coat for him that is blue on one side and gray on the other, tells him to trust no one and sends him off.
He is ill-prepared for all that will happen to him. When his horse pulls up lame, he walks her to the blacksmith, but she is unfit for the task ahead. The blacksmith offers Robey a horse on loan until his task is completed. "It was coal black, stood sixteen hands, and it was clear to see the animal suffered no lack of self possession." Indeed, the horse is more fit to do his job than is Robey. Olmstead creates an iconic horse, but never anthrpomorphizes or romanticizes the relationship between boy and horse. When they are separated, Robey is truly at sea. When they are together, they move as one.
Robey encounters every kind of evil, venality, cruelty, squalor, and depravity imaginable. He is hardened beyond his years by what he sees. There is a battle scene as horrific as any ever written, graphic and frightening. "There were enough limbs and organs, heads and hands, ribs and feet to stitch together body after body and were only in need of thread and needle and a celestial seamstress." Robey is changed forever, but never dehumanized. Olmstead leaves the reader in no doubt about the unconscionable ravages of war; he also shows us the redemption that such suffering can bring. --Valerie Ryan« less