My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Part I of “Above the Fray” (CraigsPress, May 2009) follows the exploits of protagonist Nathaniel Curry, a fifteen-year-old telegraph operator from Richmond, with the Union Army Balloon Corps from the Peninsula Campaign during the spring and summer of 1862 through the Battle of Antietam that September.
Part II begins as General Ambrose Burnside, who was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac in November 1862, is pushing into Virginia with the objective of capturing the Confederate capital at Richmond. En route, the Union Army will suffer a costly defeat at Fredericksburg in December with a battle plan that Nathaniel sees as “simple to the point of folly.”
Richmond will not fall until the spring of 1865, two years after Chief Aeronaut Thaddeus Lowe has resigned from the balloon corps due to pay and logistics disputes. The Union Army Balloon Corps, a civilian contract organization, disbands in August 1863.
Curry, however, is not out of the war. There’s no precise way to say just how he stays in the war without giving away the inventive plot. Both the Union and the Confederacy want him to spy for them, for he is either an exceptionally streetwise chameleon or a man protected by the gods. He is equally at home with generals and prostitutes, with Southern slaves and northern infantrymen, and with soaring above the fray of a battlefield and with slogging it out under fire on both sides of the lines.
Taken together, parts I and II of “Above the Fray” give the reader a balloonist’s view of the Civil War from Atlanta to Richmond to Washington, D.C. Jackson’s research is broad and impeccable, his ear for dialogue is well-tuned, and his rendering of the war from multiple theaters and perspectives is stunning.
One evening Curry and his friend Vogler are sitting in camp with several of the many historical characters, Thaddeus Lowe, James Allen and Ezra Allen reading mail.
“‘Solly,’ Nathaniel Curry said, ‘you get more mail than the rest of us together.’
“‘Vogler looked over his glasses at him and smiled.
“‘What are you reading now? What language is that?’
“‘It’s German. This is the journal of the Royal Society of Prussia.’
“‘Wouldn’t they speak Prussian?’
“‘No. You’re thinking of Russia where they speak Russian.’
“‘Oh. The letters aren’t the same as ours.’”
Vogler then tells his fellow aeronauts he’s reading an account of several record-setting balloon ascents by aerialists Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher in England who reached a height of over 37,000 feet. The second flight occurred about the same time the balloon corps was at Antietam. The aeronauts are excited about the record, and they discuss the impact of the cold temperatures and thinner atmosphere on both the aerialists and their balloon.
Such accounts expand the reach of the novel to events far from the field of battle, greatly adding to the perspective of both the characters and the reader. Similarly, events Nathaniel observes at the Second Battle of Bull Run in “Above the Fray, Part I,” bring him to the attention of those conducting the controversial court-martial of Union General Fitz-John Porter in Part II where the issues of politics, command competency and scapegoats intertwine.
Is it likely that a young telegraph operator from Richmond would be on speaking terms with President Abraham Lincoln, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and multiple officers in both the northern and southern chains of command? Perhaps not.
But Kris Jackson makes it credible and entertaining. “Above the Fray, Part II” is fine storytelling by an author who knows the territory. When Nathaniel Curry approaches Appomattox Court House in the spring of 1865, he has come a very long way from that long ago day when he inadvertently rode a balloon into the sky with Professor Thaddeus Lowe, that day when Lowe said, “The sun’ll not rise today, Nathaniel. You and I shall have to rise to meet it.”
Note: The trade paperback cover of Part II looks slightly different than the one displayed here by GoodReads.
Copyright (c) 2010 by Malcolm R. Campbell, author of “The Sun Singer” and “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire.”