I have read at least 20 novels over the course of my years that are set in and are about the War Between the States, which I will call the Civil War so to not rile my friends who live in the northern wastelands. These novels include classics like The Red Blood of Courage by Stephen Crane, Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, and my favorite, The Unvanquished by William Faulkner. I have also read quite a few more recent and often less known Civil War novels, such as Fallen Land by Taylor Brown, who is a very gifted current day novelist, and The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks.
Add on to those twenty novels, some of which have been read several times, some 100 plus histories and biographies from the War. I reached a saturation point where I began dreading teaching on the Civil War because I simply could not get through it all. I could easily teach a year-long course and barely have Lee’s army past Second Manassas.
I was quite willing, therefore, when asked to read these two volumes by P. M. Kuiper. This work, because it is really just one story separated into two volumes, is Mr. Kuiper’s first venture into getting a novel published. Now understand, I had a bit of reluctance because the characters in the story are fighting on the Union side. And first novels by previously unpublished writers can sometimes be less that Faulkner-like. (That is an impossibly high bar to set, I know.) Finally, Kuiper’s son-in-law, Marco Barone, is a friend who I admire greatly. The illustrator, Paula Barone, is Marco’s wife and P. M. Kuiper’s daughter. Although Marco wrote a scholarly book titled Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross, I reckon that he has not confined his life and energies to sitting in a library. Meaning, Marco might travel south just to punch me out if I offered a scathing review.
Here is what has happened since I received the books: I came home from the dental surgeon’s office recently after having two back teeth pulled. I laid down on the couch and picked up volume one. It was the perfect book for that day and occasion. I don’t mean that you should only get this book as a medicinal help after dental work. What I do mean is that the book was easy, enjoyable, relaxing, but also spiritually encouraging.
The Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. The story here picks up in August of 1862 with each chapter title bearing a date (month and year) of the war. It is somewhat like a diary in that manner. The characters in the story are from Holland, Michigan and are all part of a close-knit Dutch community. The main character, through whom the story is told, is named Harm van Wyke, a farm boy in his late teens. Most of the other key characters are his buddies from his home town and church.
Here I will digress to say that this story is a beautiful account of the Dutch experience in America. I grew up in the Anglo-Saxon-Celtic South and knew nothing of this from my own upbringing or education. But as I studied Calvinism as theology and as a historical experience in America, I was exposed more and more to the Dutch folk. Of course, some, like Cornelius Van Til and Louis Berkhof, are key figures in Reformed theology.
Some years ago, I did a series of talks in Virginia called “Calvinist Worldview Thinkers in the Wilderness Years” and a related series in Alaska called “Spheres of Reformation,” both of which covered some of the Dutch theologians and philosophical thinkers. Those studies, along with a few friends I acquired with Dutch backgrounds, made me aware of a counter-cultural group within America that strove really hard to maintain Christian community.
While the Dutch experience is interesting for students of history and sociology, it has a greater importance. Long before Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option became a fad or a point of discussion, there were communities already seeking to live out the Christian life and ideals without surrendering the world to the Devil.
Along with the Dutchness of the story, there is the recurring theme of the “Band of Brothers,” made famous in our own times by the book by historian Stephen Ambrose and the film series. Wartime life creates bonds unlike those of perhaps any other human experience. The shared lives, horrors, loves, deaths, fears, joys, and communal living bond men together in ways that we civilian folks cannot understand. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Marie Remarque is just such a story.
Remarque’s book is not one to read for pure pleasure, for it is quite frank and brutal. (And I love that book.) Through Many Dangers is a much better choice for younger readers and for anyone wanting to create an interest in Civil War history or supplement the historical studies.
The boys in the book grow into manhood through a series of trials, temptations, dangers, and moral dilemmas. These guys do not all come out clean. Living among soldiers gave plenty of opportunity to drink, gamble, and womanize. Soldiers curse–a lot. Kuiper spares us the words and details. Anyone who has experienced work crews, sports teams, and almost every facet of non-Christian community knows that foul language is the lingua franca of our times.
There were real dilemmas as well. Soldiers were not always fed and provisioned as they should have been. Foraging was used, commanded, and necessary to feed the armies. Try as an army might, and most didn’t really try, buying and paying for the stored foods and livestock of nearby farms was not going to happen. Soldiers took what was needed, or they starved.
As expected, soldiering involves shooting with the intent to kill. Christians have long agonized and debated on the proper circumstances where this can occur. For the Christian who takes up arms, the matter is no longer under debate. To the surprise of the young Michigan boys, Southern soldiers were also young fellows. Also, to their surprise, their Southern enemies were often brothers in Christ.
Joys in wartime often included letters from home. Harm has a girl that he is sweet on, and their friendship grows through letters. Typical of most soldiers, the most terrible parts of warfare were excluded from the letters, lest the homefolk become too distraught. But deaths could not be hidden.
I could go on with more observations from these books. I read them quickly, not because I was feeling pressure to get reviews written, but because I was caught up in the stories. I would love to teach Through Many Dangers to a class in American history and parallel the events in the story to the battles mentioned. And I would also have the students read my all-time favorite soldier memoir, Company Aytch by Sam Watkins, to get a real soldier’s perspective and a bit of Southern flavor.
I hope Mr. Kuiper lends his hand to writing another novel or two. This was a great beginning. I don’t think any of you who read these two books will be disappointed.