A Beautiful Violence: Charles Dodd White’s slim new novel packs power

BOOK REVIEW
By SHELDON LEE COMPTON

lambs-of-men-cover

Lambs of Men
Charles Dodd White
Casperian Books, 2010

It’s a slim book. One that will surprise you, though, like so many other compact stories that have the power of an atom.

From the first chapter of Charles Dodd White’s Lambs of Men, as Hiram Tobit readies to return to his mountain home from World War I to work as a recruiter for the United States Marine Corps, we sense an undercurrent of both duty and power, a return and a departure. Perhaps the best example of this is found in the first chapter as Hiram dreams of war.

“… the forest was a wall of scorched timber, ragged with stalks of smoke…. Silence rose out of the earth in a fog that rubbed itself against any living thing. A voice was simply poisoned.”

Hiram is returning home to recruit soldiers, even as he battles nightmares from his own service, but soon finds himself recruited in turn by the sheriff after a local man goes missing, along with his daughter, following a heated dispute between the two. Along the way, as Hiram joins the posse, his new troop picks up another to join the hunt for the missing father and daughter—Hiram’s estranged father, Sloan.

And so begins the true journey that lies at the heart of White’s painstakingly crafted novel—the journey of forgiveness between blood, even as blood is shed all around them and the horrors of home soon begin to reflect the horrors of war.

White expertly draws the first half of the book from Hiram, the returned war hero, showing the reader this mountain story through his eyes. But with a sure hand, White soon employs stories within the story—two to be exact—told by Sloan and standing alone as two full chapters of the book, making a smooth transition from the world seen through the son’s eyes to the world seen through the father’s eyes. Because certainly, and decidedly, White offers up through Hiram’s point-of-view a family of four, broken, it seems, beyond repair, a son who cannot remember a loving father and so cannot imagine a world populated by anyone but a simple shade of his former self. A family of four now two, and both soaked in guilt and blame. But then, with a turn of hand, White takes us into Sloan’s point-of-view and doors open, windows are unlatched, and the picture becomes more clear. This is the case when, after the posse locates the gruesome scene caused by Matt Vaughn, the father who had ran away with his daughter, Sloan the old man reflects on his hardened son.

“But why would God who Hiram the things he had? Why punish the undeserving? And why was there no way Sloan could make his son understand how sorry he was? For all of it. All of it so shameful that it clotted his mouth with hopeless silence and knowing he could never make amends.”

Death and hopelessness hang over both Hiram and Sloan in many forms throughout White’s novel. Yet, in the end, there is a glance given to a future moving slowly away from that—one of growth and renewal; one born from the fire of loss and pain, and then the gradual mending of wounds. In a book both beautiful in language and voice, a display of true craft, White also takes those tools and washes us in a story of violence to  remind us that in the wake of a storm there is sunlight, if the soul is patient and the body willing.


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