Let’s Discuss — Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

His belly swooped low and dashed at his pelvis where it fluttered. This night was war. The falling rain was war. The clipped moon was war. The earth where they stood and the sky they stood under was war (103)

Despite the title, the story is not about a coal black horse. It’s about a journey, a mini epic if you will. The journey of Robey Childs, a youth of fourteen, sent on an almost impossible mission during the peak of the Civil War, to seek out his father on the battlefields. A coal black horse leads him through the battle-torn North and South, but again it’s not about the horse, it’s about Robey figuring out the equation of war and how it will shape him into a man.

A lot happens in this mini epic…mostly horrific things and death. It’s through these close encounters with death that Robey is able to internalize lessons of survival.

Lessons learned in a time of war:

  • be angry.
  • do not despair.
  • trust no one.
  • bad things will happen and you will do bad things.
  • be unknown and unseen.
  • the dead will kill you.
  • you will gain immunity to the smell of death.
  • everyone believes in the same mistake.
  • people should be born twice.
  • belief in God is finished.
  • war is the nature of man.
  • let the past go.
  • you will become one of many failed humans.

What do you think of those lessons ? I’m sure there were more throughout the book, but these were the ones I remembered. Some are potentially universal…or at least relevant in the war and conflict of today and possibly of the future.

Strewn over the few hundred acres was everything a man carried inside and out. There were enough limbs and organs, heads and hands, ribs and feet to stitch together body after body and were only in need of thread and needle and a celestial seamstress (116)

The language in this book is beautiful. The imagery? –powerful. And the subject matter?– grisly.

I thought it was interesting that even though the story is set during the Civil War, the issue of slavery is lightly brushed upon…not a complaint just an observation. My least favorite part of the book was Rachel, not because she was a poorly developed character, but simply because if I were Robey, I couldn’t justify her company–she was a hazard. My favorite part was the end, even though the last few chapters were sadder than the rest. Robey did what he had to do. Forever changed by war and no longer a boy, the son becomes the father.


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