About The Silent
From the critically acclaimed author of The Memory Cathedral comes a most powerful, haunting and unforgettable novel of the American Civil War. Provocative, poetic and disturbing, The Silent introduces us to a young narrator whose voice rivals any in literature in bringing poignantly to life the surreal horrors of battle and its spiritual cost to human survival.
′I was almost thirteen when the bluebelly Yankee bastards invaded the Valley. I saw a lot that day . They killed Poppa right off, and then they dragged Mother into the front yard before they killed her too. I figure that was the day I first got the knack of being invisible.′
′A ferocious portrait . Dann captures . the sheer bloody chaos of battle in the civil war . A vivid - and disturbing - read.′ Kirkus Reviews
A note from Jack Dann, author of The Silent
I′m a relatively "new" Australian, having only been here five years, and I was excited to learn that readers′ clubs have become such an important part of the literary scene. I learned the "bones" of my craft in writers′ workshops, which behave very much like readers′ clubs. In both cases constructive criticism and shared ideas change and deepen the way we think about literature and the world at large. Although reading is a very private experience, ideas are meant to be shared...and as the writer, I′d like to get into the conversation, too!
So I′ve put together some thoughts about how I came to write The Silent and what I′ve discovered about historical fiction in general. I′ve also included some discussion questions. I hope some of these ideas will surprise you...and spark debate.
My very best wishes,
Questions for Discussion
1. Critics have compared Jack Dann′s protagonist Mundy McDowell to Mark Twain′s Huckleberry Finn. Is this an apt comparison, and if so, why?
2. Critics have also compared The Silent to Jerzy Kosinski′s World War Two novel The Painted Bird. Is this an apt comparison?
3. Is The Silent an anti-war novel?
4. Why do you think that the author selected a child - an unreliable narrator - as the viewpoint character?
5. There is a continuing public fascination with the American Civil War. Do you think this book extends our understanding of the effect of war on average people?
6. How does The Silent deal with the question of racism? Is Mundy a racist?
7. Do you think we can learn what the Civil War might have really been like from novels such as The Silent?
8. The author has used a lot of the folklore and superstitions of the time in The Silent. How much do such things tell us about how people thought in the Civil War?
9. Jack Dann has described such Civil War icons as Stonewall Jackson and Colonel Ashby in ways that might surprise Civil War buffs. Do you think that these descriptions are accurate and why would the author present them this way?
10. Jack Dann has been quoted as saying that writing historical novels is like writing science fiction. Can you see any similarities between the genres?
11. There are some very violent scenes in this novel. Do you feel they are justified?
12. Some of the characters inThe Silent are spirits of the dead. Do these spirit characters help create a "heightened reality"?
13.The Silent is narrated from the point of view of a child trying to make sense of a world that is breaking down. Does Mundy just imagine that some of the characters are spirits of the dead? Would you consider The Silent to be magical realism? If so, does this add to the sense of reality?
14. What role does the spirit dog play? Why does Mundy leave the safety of his uncle′s home to find the spirit dog?
15. The Silent is a novel about coming of age and coming to terms with loss. Does Mundy really come to terms with loss?
16. What do you think happens to Mundy?
Some thoughts by Jack Dann about The Silent
Once, when asked to contribute an essay about one of my favorite books, I wrote:
Some books are read; others seem to become part of our own, private experience.
Perhaps it′s a function of youth, just as the music we hear during adolescence and early adulthood remains part of our intensely evocative experience. Yet I find something like that still happening: even now certain books become my own. Perhaps art enables us to overcome the ennui and cynicism of "maturity" and suspend our disbelief. Thus we become innocents once again, opening ourselves to life.
The Painted Bird (by Jerzy Kosinski) still burns in my memory, perhaps more brightly than any of the others. It is still an experienced nightmare, a waking dream, after fifteen years. I discovered the book when I began to write fiction, when I was crossing that bridge from being reader to writer. The initial horror I remember experiencing when I first read the book has transformed itself over the years into a sensation of numinal perfection, of something magical and yet terrible, something so incandescently pure and frightening as to be insidious.
So when asked to recommend my favorite novel, I went back to my library to re-read The Painted Bird.
And there I found The Silent. . . .
In Kosinski′s introduction to a new edition of the book, he wrote that old school friends "blamed me for watering down historical truth and accused me of pandering to an Anglo-Saxon sensibility whose only confrontation with national cataclysm had been the Civil War a century earlier, when bands of abandoned children roamed through the devastated South." When I read that sentence, I was electrified. It was the shock of recognition. I knew, as soon as I read Kosinski′s words, that my next major work would be about the Civil War. My experience has always been that the material chooses the writer.
That′s what happened with my last novel, The Memory Cathedral.
And that′s what happened here. . . .
As soon as I read Kosinski′s lines, I glimpsed the thoughts and dreams and fears and obsessions of my protagonist: a fourteen-year-old boy, mute from the horrors he has witnessed, chased by demons real and imagined, seeing the tragedy of the Civil War through a child′s eyes where reality, folk superstition, magic, and history have become incandescent. I set out to portray the personal and secret world that exists within familiar textbook and popular history.
When I read Kosinski′s comparison of The Painted Bird with the experience of children during the Civil War, I remembered how I had felt when I read Lord of the Flies, and I compared that experience to reading Kosinski′s own The Painted Bird, Twain′s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Salinger′s The Catcher in the Rye. I could hear Mundy′s voice whispering to me; and in that instant of "recognition" (for want of a better word), I knew how The Silent had to be shaped. The story required a close-focus immediacy, and it had to be told from the most personal of viewpoints: first person.
I wanted the reader to experience the greatest, most cataclysmic and influen- tial period in our history through the eyes of a child. With the eyes of a child. I wanted to disclose the small details not found in traditional histories and bring this period to life through the experience of personal, emotional history. Mundy conflates fantasy and reality as he tries to make sense of his experiences; and as he finds imaginary friends to guide him and make sense of the world, The Silent becomes peopled with ghosts and spirits that are as capricious as the living. But they, too, betray him and turn away from him. Although there might be those who consider The Silent "magical realism," my purpose was to create a heightened reality. I wanted to convey the terrible bliss of combat and the irreal sense of compression and excitement and horror that occurs when the familiar world breaks down. A Yankee civilian wrote that the Civil War "crowded into a few years the emotions of a lifetime." For Mundy, the experience and emotions of a lifetime were crowded into a single year.
I drew from diaries of the period, in the same way that I fleshed out the characters and background in The Memory Cathedral. I believe that fiction lives in the details, and diaries and reminiscences are the best sources. Just as The Diaries of Ibn Battuta, Lucca Landucci′s A Florentine Diary, and Leonardo da Vinci′s notebooks shaped The Memory Cathedral, so did firsthand reports help me discover the form and narrative thrust of The Silent - recollections such as Cornelia McDonald′s A Woman′s Civil War, Luther Hopkins′s From Bull Run to Appomattox: A Boy′s View, Francis Dawson′s Reminiscences of Confederate Service, Jedediah Hotchkiss′s Make Me a Map of the Valley, Jesse Bowman Young′s What a Boy Saw in the Army, John S. Robson′s How a One-Legged Rebel Lives, Lucy Rebecca Buck′s Sad Earth, Sweet Heaven, and Henry Kyd Douglas′s I Rode with Stonewall, to name but a very few. The Hopkins and Young books were especially revealing, for they depict the experiences of teenage soldiers in the Union and Confederate armies. Although I found many interesting details about the war in books such as What a Boy Saw in the Army, some of these old soldiers were more interested in relating incidents that emphasized patriotism and heroism rather than the indelicate details of the horrors and idiocies of war. But I have always found that the most interesting and revelatory "bits" - the material that ends up driving the novel - can be buried in the most unlikely text.
So in the end - and as always! - there was no choice but to try to read everything I could - books on the sexual mores of the period, such as Thomas P. Lowry′s excellent The Story the Soldiers Wouldn′t Tell: Sex in the Civil War, chapbooks published locally in very limited quantities on subjects as diverse as Civil War ghosts and women soldiers who disguised themselves as men, letters published by regional organizations such as the Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society, monographs on the geology of the region, texts on Civil War medical equipment and surgical procedures, texts on munitions and uniforms and railroads, folklore journals, newspapers and magazines of the period, and the endlessly fascinating (and alternatively numbing) eighty-volume War of the Rebellion series, published by the Government Printing Office. The War of the Rebellion series includes military correspondence, logs, hearings, maps, and casualty figures from both sides of the conflict. (The author was fortunate that only about seven volumes were relevant to Mundy′s adventures!)
One of the most interesting sources was Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves, edited by Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips. In 1936 the Virginia Writers Project began interviewing ex-slaves in Virginia, and over a period of a year conducted more than three hundred interviews. Unfortunately, almost half of the interviews have been lost or destroyed, but the surviving reminiscences are a deep look into the period. Although these are "translations" by the interviewers-and some of their notations are quite idiosyncratic-one can still hear the poetry of Negro slave dialect in these songs and stories that have been all but lost; they are precious accounts of faith and joy and despair. It was after I read these interviews that Mundy′s voice became louder, more insistent, and I glimpsed new scenes and plot twists as if I were a sailor seeing land through the roiling fog and mist. I also found the sketchbook of artist James E. Taylor invaluable. Taylor accompanied General Philip H. Sheridan during his campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in 1864. Although Taylor would not by any measure be considered a great artist, I found his detailed drawings of the Valley-its people, houses, battlefields, towns, cities, and roads-more useful than the brilliant battlefield and campground drawings and paintings of Winslow Homer or the heart-wrenching battle photographs of Alexander Gardner. While Homer and Gardner recorded timeless moments, Taylor recorded the mundane, easily forgotten details of everyday life. I found those details invaluable because for me a novel comes to life through the small moments that pave the way for the great scenes and epiphanies . . . if, indeed, there are to be any.
Although I glimpsed Mundy and The Silent when I first read Kosinski′s foreword (and I could feel some of the pulse and rhythms of the book when I immersed myself in the period and place-after I had read diary upon diary, source upon source), I didn′t have the blood and bones of the book until I actually walked everywhere Mundy walked. Until I had lived for a time in the Valley and looked through the scrims of the present into the past. The Valley is still alive with ghosts. When I stood stock-still in some of the old graveyards and battlefields, I could hear the whispers of the past, and it was there that The Silent came to life. It was in the silent, empty fields, which had once been soaked with blood, that I listened to Mundy and saw the novel as if I were a Peeping Tom eavesdropping on the land itself.
And just as I was eavesdropping on Mundy, so was Mundy eavesdropping on himself, creating this diary as a mnemonic-a means by which he might recapture everything he had lost. Can one come of age and become human without coming to terms with loss? Perhaps that′s the central question of the book.
Indeed, does Mundy become human . . . or does he become a spirit?
He left me with the last line: "Can′t wait anymore. Gone to find the spirit dog."
I leave it to you to decide.
About Jack Dann