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TBTS Reviews: The Coldest Night

June 6, 2012

With The Coldest Night, Robert Olmstead has reached the end of a long journey. The last book in a thematic trilogy begun with Coal Black Horse and Far Bright Star, The Coldest Night is the story of Henry Childs, grandson and nephew of the main characters of Coal Black Horse and Far Bright Star, respectively, born in the Great Depression in the West Virginia mountains, destined for a soldier’s life in Korea. The men of the Childs family are born to fight:

[T]hey were big, sprawling, raw boned. They were angular, musclar, warlike and discontented. They farmed and mined and logged and framed out houses and worked the shipyards, and they quarreled beyond reconciliation and then it would be forgotten. From them Henry learned the stories of his grandfather and his old uncles. He learned that if any one of them was threatened they would descend with all stealth and fury, with gun or knife or torch or dynamite. They were a family relentless in their hatreds.

And just as the Childs men are born to fight in wars, Robert Olmstead was seemingly born to write about them. His books are intensely masculine but not macho. There is nothing phony about them. There is no posturing, nor even a puff of bluster, only simple truth about war and the men who fight in it. The Coldest Night – originally titled Cold Dark Night, according to the author when I first met him while on a signing tour for Far Bright Star, but changed at the last minute at the publisher’s request – is perhaps my favorite of the three. Coal Black Horse felt like a mythic journey, and Far Bright Star like a grand adventure, but The Coldest Night combines both those things with a great love story, wherein a broken-hearted boy who runs to the far side of the world into the teeth of war in his grief over the loss of his first and greatest love, Mercy, who is torn away from Henry by her wealthy, disapproving father. Henry becomes a Marine and finds himself at Chosin, where Chinese troops encircled badly outnumbered U.N. forces north of the 38th parallel, fighting over seventeen days in freezing weather before the U.N. forces broke out and withdrew. A wounded Henry returns home after the war, only to face the challenge of re-integrating into civilian life and facing the places and people he knew before the war.

As a stylist, Olmstead is gifted with the ability to distill each scene to its essence in clear, unadorned but unambiguous prose. His style is easy to compare to writers like McCarthy and Hemingway, but he is fundamentally different from either. Olmstead is a humane writer, and though he doesn’t shy from horror, neither does he revel in it. He focuses on the trials of soldiers not just in combat but the long wearying spaces between and the challenge of normal life after. His descriptions of war are neither overwrought nor coated in a heroic gloss. His plainspoken prose is neither cynical nor romantic and feels like nothing but the truth, and the truth, for Olmstead, is that soldiers in war are often more alive than they have ever been or will ever be again. It’s been said before – he himself visited the theme in Coal Black Horse and Far Bright Star – but it is one that bears repeating. If we, human beings, are unable to avoid going to war, if we are doomed to fight one another, we must at least understand those who fight and neither reflexively condemn nor blindly revere them.

But it is the love story which bookends the war, and it is that which makes this my favorite of the three. Henry throws himself into love, and when that is denied him, throws himself into war, but when the war is over, what can he do? What is left, once you have been ravaged by both love and war in the course of one terrible year? Henry’s choice feels inevitable and, though heartbreaking, the only choice he has left to him. I highly recommend The Coldest Night to anyone who wants to see what great war fiction – and great love stories – can accomplish.

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