Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Review: "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz

As I do once I finish the first half of my reading list for a given year, I fill the time by reading a few nonfictions books, trying my best to read as many genres of nonfiction that I can. This year, I wanted to read a history book, one that was not too long or as dry as sawdust, and I found the perfect example in Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic. While it is a dense read at points, this is the perfect book for someone whose interest in history is limited and not adept to the long tomes you find in your local book store. While ostensibly about the Civil War in America, it is more focused on the effects today in the modern age, or 1998 when it was published, than with any of what happened 150 years ago. It acts more like a travel book with history thrown in, and it is never anything but fascinating, conflicting and complex. It is also, in our current political climate, a very relevant book even though it is almost 20 years old, with one chapter, arguably the best section of the book, eerily familiar to some of our headlines today.  It begins with Horwitz, after years abroad, comes back to the States and becomes obsessed with the Civil War and how it influences so many people today, especially in the South. First he begins to infiltrate the many numbers of people who become entrenched in the act of reenacting many of the more famous Civil War battles. Preferring to be called “living historians” the level of intensity is all over the place, with those who eat a hearty hotel breakfast before going out to the battle field, to those who only speak a certain and about certain topics while on the battle field, to one man, Robert Lee Hodge, maybe the star of the book (it’s him on the cover gripping the big knife and looking intimidating), who is skilled at bloating, the act of looking like the dead in war photographs and talks about the weight he loses so he can look more like the starved soldiers and get more modeling gigs. He is a fascinating person who shows up a few times throughout the book, and the reader, at least this one, looks upon him with reverence a tinge of sadness. Horwitz travels throughout the South, from Atlanta, where Gone with the Wind is more an industry than a movie, catering to people’s perceptions even when they are not true, to Tennessee where a talk with writer Shelby Foote reveals some very interesting and controversial opinions on the Civil War and Nathan Bedford Forrest, and finally Kentucky, where Michael Westerman was killed by a black man named Freddie Morrow for having a rebel flag on his truck. This is the most interesting and sad section of the book, where the crime is seen as indicative of how frayed the relationship is between blacks and whites, something that lingers as the book comes to a close on the fields of Gettysburg. A dissection of our nations split psyche as well as a look into how nostalgia can liberate us and hold us back, a book like this makes history, at least for those who don’t find it as interesting as fiction, a different more thought-provoking and urgent beast all together. 
Rating: 5/5

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