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.