Culture & Criticism Since 2003
The title of this book is a bit misleading: In the story, the Civil War is a vast natural tidal disaster that dismantles the lives of four siblings, destroying everything they know and love. Ultimately, the war recedes like a tsunami, taking the wreckage as it goes, with the wreckage doing more damage than the wave did when it came in.
As noted, This Scorched Earth follows the lives of three brothers and a sister. After the war cruelly separates them, each are left in pursuit of some quiet island of sanity and stability. But that island does not seem to exist. Instead, each suffers great depths of torment and privation while being pursued by ghosts — in one case, the ghosts end up being quite real.
As we move though the story, we see that this family reflects the nation, riven by fundamental divisions and flaws. Moreover, as a reflection of their nation, the four end up on various sides, irrespective of their beliefs, politics, or philosophies. Ultimately, the family, like the nation, shatters into bloody carnage and then slowly re-coalesces, with none of the parts fitting the way they did before.
This Scorched Earth is a monumental work, and seems destined to become an American classic. In the hands of the right director, I think this book could become an epic miniseries, the equal of Roots or Lonesome Dove. It has that same grandeur and majesty, leavened by the deeply human characters. Its greatest triumph is that it never loses its focus on the people, whether in battle, in camps, in the wilds, or in their frontier communities.
William Gear, writing under a variety of names, has at least 27 titles to his credit, including the North America’s Forgotten Past series, which is an encyclopedic study of native American tribes. In that work, one of the brothers ends up with the Dukurika, or Sheep Eaters, as Gear’s background in lore makes for a rich and compelling tale within a tale, all the while reminding us that what may be madness in one culture is wisdom to another.
Readers should note that this is a book best digested slowly. I took it 3 or 4 chapters at a time (there’s 130 chapters here, each about 4 and a half pages long), stopping to consider and reflect on each set. Gear rotated, for the most part, among the four siblings, with each taking a overall plot cycle. I mention this only to say that this is the approach that worked best for me. However, others may stay up all night and read the whole thing in one go. But whatever tack you choose, realize that this is a piece of work that deserves quiet and thoughtful attention. And possibly a second reading.
Bryan Zepp Jamieson was born in Ottawa, Canada and raised in London. He has lived in the Mount Shasta area since 1990, which he regards as the finest place on earth. Jamieson has spent the past 25 years as a graphic layout technician, web designer and writer, with over a thousand essays, a dozen short stories, and two novels – Ice Fall and Snow Fall – to his credit. In addition to his wife of 30-plus years, he normally lives with a dog and several cats, none of whom are impressed by him. Reach him through The Electric Review.