four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
29-July-Aug-2007
user_rating: 
0

A-Coal Black HorseMay 1863, Virginia’s Transmontane region. Hettie Childs, the clairvoyant mother of 14-year-old Robey, senses that Robey’s father, a Confederate soldier, is in imminent danger. The boy secures provisions—including the horse of the title (the blacksmith who gives the horse to Robey warns, "It’s a horse that leaves quite an impression. It is the kind of horse that can get you killed")—and heads off in search of his father. Against the backdrop of some of the war’s most disturbing and eerie sights, he arrives in Gettysburg in the days following that famous battle. Part rescue mission and part coming-of-age, Robey’s journey transforms him from an innocent child to a man who starts to understand war, vengeance, and redemption.
Algonquin. 224 pages. $23.95. ISBN: 1565125215

Chicago Tribune 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Coal Black Horse, Robert Olmstead’s magisterial sixth book, is as sensate as poetry and forbidding as any squall, steeped in detail but bound by few storytelling conventions. I wondered, as I read it, if … readers of The Red Badge of Courage and The March and Cold Mountain will make room for another novel of a certain era that is rife with the shattering lessons of war." Beth Kephart

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Coal Black Horse explores the themes of maturation, violation and creation in a coming-of-age story. Olmstead is an extraordinarily lyrical writer whose book, in focusing on a young man tested by war, perhaps more closely evokes Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage." Carlo Wolff

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"Coal Black Horse will be the one that finally brings him the attention he deserves. … In stark, simple language, and a grammatical structure that echoes the work of Cormac McCarthy, Olmstead has found his own voice, one you will not easily forget." Sarah Willis

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Writer Robert Olmstead fully flushes out the atrocities of war as Minié balls whiz past and explode, the sights and sounds of war alternately suffocating and mesmerizing. … In Coal Black Horse, Olmstead follows his true narrative voice and writes like a man on fire." Elisabeth A. Doehring

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Coal Black Horse] is not The Red Badge of Courage, but aside from its traces of oddball language, it is a gripping read, with much extremely vivid rendering. … Sex, violence, revenge, sympathetic young protagonist, maiden in distress … it’s all there, enveloped in a plausibly dark take on life and death." James Leigh

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"To the steady drumbeat of powerful Civil War novels that continue to arrive, you must add Coal Black Horse. … More troubling are flashes of pretension that mar Olmstead’s prose. The book’s epigraph comes from Job, and the voice of God seems to keep butting in throughout the story." Ron Charles

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"It is men, destroying one another in ways Olmstead describes with gory extravagance—‘hair, brains, entrails and shreds of human flesh cooking black in the heated air’—who come off as beasts. Yet for all the novel’s success as a grueling adventure, its depiction of Robey’s inner journey from boy to man works less well." Roy Hoffman

Critical Summary

Robert Olmstead has previously published three novels, a short story collection (River Dogs), and a memoir. Brief and intense, Coal Black Horse has generated high praise and seems destined to become the author’s breakout book. Critics inevitably compare the novel to Charles Frazier’s masterpiece, Cold Mountain, and other classics of Civil War and postapocalyptic fiction: Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, E. L. Doctorow’s The March, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Michael Shaara’s Killer Angels. Some critics note passages of purple prose and convenient plotting, though most agree that Olmstead has written a stark, beautiful novel whose powerful, disturbing, and ultimately redemptive vision negates any flaws.