Connecting with Madison Smartt Bell’s “April 1863”

by Ally Wright  ·  October 24, 2016

War has never seemed to me something I could write about. Worthy of being written about, obviously, but too grand for my never-having-been-to-war brain. How do you capture that terror, that level of extremity? How could you even understand it?

These are some of the reasons I am intrigued by Madison Smart Bell’s “April 1863,” (published in Five Points Vol. 13, No. 1) set in the midst of a battle during the Civil War. He finds his way into this massive topic through his style, which is rapid, scattered, and forceful:

Harried by their mounted captors, prisoners from Freeman’s battery ran or tried to run in a herky-jerky slow motion across the field to the water maples lining the river bank. Something bad was going to happen or already had. Freeman was heavy, used to riding with his caissons; he could not keep the pace. He sank to one knee, blowing in the sodden grass, a Federal soldier turned back, raised a pistol; the captured surgeon there at Freeman’s side threw up one of his hands—Forrest was going to finish his story later, or no, he had already finished it, at Parker’s Crossroads in December, about four months before. Was the past the part that had already happened, the future still to come? The battle would be, had been similar to this one, at least in some of its particulars . . .

At the beginning of the story, one character is in “a heightened state of consciousness,” but really they all are, and so are we as we read. Bell pulls us into the world of war, the heightened state of life from moment to moment; the moment being the only place you can live when the world is so broken. Your body isn’t yours. The landscape around you isn’t yours. Even the month or week isn’t yours, as Bell shows us through the shifts in understanding, memory, and action, that make up the plot of the story. Other then the clue from the title, that the story is taking place in April of 1863, we do not have a firm grasp on what battle we are in, even who’s alive or who’s gone. The main character and perspective shift, too; we do not know how many horses have been shot out from under how many men, or which one dies this time. He does all of this while still making us feel sad about the death of the horse and the man who was shot off of it. We feel their fear and their ability, their clarity and their confusion.

He does not dwell on the facts of the war, but the mood, and that, I believe, is what makes this story successful. We really only know it is the Civil War by the title and certain fragments of conversation. Turns of speech by the characters place us in the South.

The experience of reading “April 1963” for the first time is one of disorientation and fear. I struggle to find a firm place to land within the story, which, when I do try to imagine war, is what I see: people taken out of a solid reality, placed on this chaotic, broken ground. People able to know clearly both a picture much bigger than themselves, and one of only themselves, but little in between. It is war, and it is now, and that is all.