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Book Review: A Distant Flame by Philip Lee Williams

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Philip Lee Williams’ novel A Distant Flame (St. Martin’s Press, 2004) is about a man’s struggle to make sense of his memories and the life they contain.  His name is Charlie Merrill, a civil war veteran and small-town newspaper editor known nationally for his columns and books.  From a 1914 vantage point, Charlie as an old man prepares to deliver a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Atlanta, and in the process he recalls his experiences in the war and his relationship with a girl he once loved – and whom he still loves. 

Through alternating chapters set in 1861-62, 1864, and 1914, the novel recounts a love story, a war story, and an old man’s struggle to come to terms with his life. The 1861-62 chapters describe a relationship that develops between Charlie and Sarah, a girl who has come to live with her uncle in Charlie’s town while her parents in Boston are divorcing.  The relationship ends in 1864 when she leaves for England to live with her father. The 1864 chapters recount Charlie’s experiences as a soldier and sharpshooter with the Confederate Army as it retreats before Sherman’s army, advancing from Chickamauga down through northern Georgia towards Atlanta.  

This narrative approach has its drawbacks. Just as the moment when a particular chapter develops momentum, the novel suddenly switches to another time period, and there is as a result a lapse in tension and interest.  However, as the novel progresses, the reader’s sense of Charlie’s character, and of the connections between the three different stories, deepens, and the transitions from one to the other are less jarring.  In fact, the novel grows more engaging with each chapter – this may occur as the reader adjusts to Williams’ method.  Moreover, as the novel moves forward the chapters seem to lengthen, so that transitions are less frequent. 

There are points in A Distant Flame where some might question the realism of how characters speak and act towards one another.  For example, Charlie speaks to General Patrick Cleburne, who has befriended him, in such a mannered and courtly way that it is difficult to know whether this manner of speech is historically accurate, borrowed from some other Civil War novel, or from Sir Walter Scott, or just a loose attempt to suggest how people from more than a century in the past might have spoken. 

Yet Williams shows great dexterity with facts and details and speech and behavior that give a historical novel a sense of reality.  His deeply detailed knowledge of the Civil War never overwhelms the story and instead serves as a rich historical context.  His research for the novel was prodigious – in an afterword he describes how he prepared to write it. Through letters, journals, diaries, and other accounts of speech from the era, he learned much about how men and women from that era talked and thought, and there is good reason to trust the novel’s portrayal of life on the home and battle fronts during the Civil War. (The town of Branson, in which Charlie lives, is based on Madison, Georgia, where Williams grew up).

Although the novel focuses mainly on the white inhabitants of a small Georgia town around the time of the Civil War, Williams is careful to document the social realities of the times in which they lived, including the reality of slaves and slavery.  Although he shows a close relationship between the Merrill family and some of their slaves, he makes clear that the slaves had no choice in their condition, that their lives were constrained, and that sometimes they expressed their unhappiness about their condition.  As an old man, Charlie is convinced that slavery was an evil. 

A Distant Flame is at its strongest in descriptions of battle. They are graphic, intense, and convincing.  Few books come as close as this one does to a credible, seemingly realistic portrayal of battle.  One thinks of The Red Badge of Courage.  One comes away from this novel with a better understanding of the unpleasantness and unworldly horrors of battle – not only the violence and carnage of battle, but the unhealthy conditions in which solders lived and often died of disease. 

The novel does not glorify the Civil War or the Old South.  Charlie’s motives for going to war are not ones of Southern patriotism but rather are personal – he goes to war out of grief over losing Sarah and over the deaths of family members.  The conditions of war are horrible, and Williams suggests through these battle scenes that it offers little opportunity for glory. Though he sympathizes with it, Charlie never embraces the Confederate cause.  His sense of distance, his indifference, and his ability to view the conflict between North and South from both sides enables him to see the war more fully than a biased observer could manage.

Ultimately A Distant Flame is about Charlie Merrill’s efforts to understand and accept his life – his lost love Sarah, the fates of family members, his experiences during the retreat towards Atlanta, his feelings about war, his sense of himself as a journalist and a public citizen of Branson. It is similar in that respect to Williams’ first novel The Heart of a Distant Forest (1984), also about an older man assessing the progress of his life.

At the end, as we discover in the penultimate chapter, Merrill achieves some feeling of accomplishment for his life, yet he also feels disappointed and bitter.  That is the nature of life, as we grow older and look back at what we have and have not done.  It is never as good as we would like it.  A Distant Flame thus would end on a muted and ambiguous note consistent with the novel’s overall tendency towards withheld judgment, stoicism and acceptance of disappointment and tragedy.  The addition of one final chapter, set in 1918, gives a somewhat different twist to a conclusion that might better have been left to imagination.

A Distant Flame is Philip Lee Williams most ambitious and successful novel.  It received the 2004 Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction and was named by the Georgia Center for the Book in 2005 as one of the top 25 notable books by Georgia authors.

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