Book Review - Riding North with Amanda C. Gable

The Confederate General Rides North comes of age

In the summer of 2001, Amanda C. Gable found the battlefields she’d been looking for. Living for the season as a resident writer of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, she traced out an Atlantic road trip of vital Civil War sites – Appomattox, Manassas, and Gettysburg among them. Walking among the calm grassy fields of silent canons and entrenchments, Gable felt her first novel finally taking a distinct shape. It would be fair to say that Gable doesn’t write quickly, not by anyone’s standards. When The Confederate General Rides North is published this August, it will arrive more than 20 years after Gable first started writing about Katherine McConnell, an utterly complex 11-year-old girl who, on occasion, imagines herself as the Gen. Robert E. Lee.

This narrator, Kat, is as passionate for Civil War history as a preteen girl living in Marietta during the late 1960s could possibly be. She covets the Confederate gray coats and hats, visits Kennesaw Mountain and the Cyclorama with awe, and memorizes dates and famous names, though the violent gravity of slavery and war eludes her. Her historical enthusiasm is as anxiety-inducing for the reader as it is for Kat’s mother, who bristles at the thought of “gruesome” war celebrations and the legacy of “idiot Southern white people.” Her father is less concerned, even supportive and happy that she’s interested in their family history.

Kat is a remarkably well-imagined narrator, realistically filtering the complexities of Southern history, along with those strange notions of honor and pride, through the fish-eyed world of an adolescent. The violent specter of Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement are at the periphery of her thoughts, mentioned in passing by adults and occasionally obscured by the soundtrack of Gladys Knight and Sam Cooke records. When her parents fight (and, oh, do they fight – launching dinner plates across the room and turning over tables), Kat retreats into her italicized fantasies of life as Lee, thinking, “The Confederate general sits back in her saddle, smiling. Maybe the war will end soon, as everyone in the South thought.”

Kat and her mother steal away early one morning, presumably on a road trip to buy old furniture for an antique store, and find themselves headed toward a path of old battlefields, the places that Kat has been daydreaming about for years. Though her mother only begrudgingly makes time for these Civil War excursions, the experience prompts a sense of reflection and understanding that Kat previously lacked. Her ignorant exuberance is eventually diminished, as a “wave of sadness comes over her for each of these dead men” and the emotional instability of her mother becomes frighteningly real.

Gable admits that she has drawn heavily on her own experiences growing up in Marietta. Though she says the book is by no means a roman á clef, she remembers a feeling of distance from the world of adults and politics that Kat experiences in The Confederate General. “You sense things as a child that you don’t intellectually understand,” she says. “Growing up in a town that was a battlefield, you’re sort of fed a line from Southern culture about the Civil War, race relations, that whole nine yards.” Gable sees The Confederate General, in a way, as the story of a girl who “gradually, as she is being exposed to different opinions, develops and begins to understand the complexity of this history.” That coming-of-age transformation for Kat just happens to be on the battlefield.

Aside from a number of residency fellowships at Yaddo and the Hambidge Center, Gable credits the Zona Rosa writing group for keeping her going through the years of writing The Confederate General. Led by Rosemary Daniell, the lauded and controversial author of Fatal Flowers, the 20 or so women of Zona Rosa meet monthly at a house in Atlanta to share new drafts and advice. Though the group counts a number of published, hardworking writers, the atmosphere is never competitive. “That just doesn’t happen,” Gable says. The “incredible amount of support” she’s received from the group has fostered a sense of community that Gable has tried to give back.

For a few years in the ’90s, Gable served as a board member of the Charis Circle, a group that helped organize the literary and community events that happen in and around Little Five Points’ iconic feminist bookstore. She’s now channeled that devotion to local booksellers into writing and is currently working on a nonfiction volume about the past and present of independent bookstores. Considering the pace at which Gable writes, it might be better not to guess when Gable’s next book will appear, but if The Confederate General is any indication, it will be worth the wait.