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By MARY POPHAM
Nearly 30 years in the writing, Richard Taylor’s important historic work, Sue Mundy: A Novel of the Civil War, is poetry. Meticulous research and love of his native Kentucky by its former poet laureate are obvious. Taylor’s description of a walk through nettles, trees that tolerate high water, the scratching of birds and the fidget of wood life sings. His accounts of orderly farms and towns wrought by our early settlers, and how that order is destroyed, are backdrops to a search for impulses that morph a thoughtful and well-raised farm boy into an outlaw-killer.
Narrating events of bloodshed during the Civil War, where in Kentucky it was literally brother against brother, Taylor skillfully explores the motives and imagined reveries of the shrewd, reliable Confederate soldier turned guerrilla fighter, M. Jerome Clarke, a.k.a. Sue Mundy. Taylor delineates the fabrications of the editor of the Louisville Journal, George Prentice, who tagged Jarom (a family nickname) as a “she-devil woman.” Prentice sensationalizes the already atrocious crimes of looting marauders who begin fighting for the Confederate cause and end with vendettas in their personal wars of revenge.
In a horrific analogy of the war, while giving a foretaste of Jarom’s violent nature unleashed, Taylor describes a cockfight. Two handlers attach tiny knives to the claw nubs of the splendid fowl, and then, cradling them, the men toss the roosters toward each other, teasing them into a bloody attack. After witnessing the death of one of the manipulated birds, Jarom has no taste for the senseless bloodletting. “The lanterns after the fight seemed dimmer, and for the first time that night he felt an abiding chill.”
Taylor goes beyond the character sketches of brutal officers, including General John Hunt Morgan, Captain Edwin Terrell and Commander Gano Burbridge and soldiers turned guerrillas: Sue Mundy, William C. Quantrill, Frank James and others. He personalizes dates and sites of the skirmishes, from the Blue River in southern Indiana to Greenville, Tennessee, detailing mostly those in the Kentucky counties familiar to us: Jefferson, Bullitt, Spencer, Nelson, Marion, Shelby, Owen, Fayette and Woodford. His fictional narrative provides insight into the alienation of the outlaws in their determination to settle personal scores.
Taylor writes a glorious passage on the estranged Jarom’s reaction to “creatures of peculiar habit,” tree frogs. “Something about them troubles him—they make no sound, show no acknowledgment in their creaturely self-sufficiency. To him this signifies contempt …. He has an impulse to draw his pistol … to shake them from their study, jar them from their witness.”
Throughout the recounting of premature and violent death, Kentucky’s rended landscape, humiliation and deprivation on both sides, the author maintains a constant entreaty against war: “For what? For one government to impose its will on another, giving up its young as payment [while providing] flags and martial music to soften the barbarism …”
Sue Mundy is an unforgettable novel for historians or anyone longing for a well-told story.
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Freelance writer Mary Popham lives in Louisville, Kentucky.