Verdict: A vivid, engrossing story of one battle, told from the perspective of the soldiers that fought it, and the surgeons who tried to patch them up.
In “Not One Among Them Whole,” author Edison McDaniels, takes us by the hand and leads us through the horrors of battle as witnessed by a handful of individuals. It serves as a timely reminder for the video game generation that might see war as a glorious endeavor from which heroes emerge triumphant and whole. There are no heroes in McDaniels’ book, only people coping as best they can with desperate situations. There’s no black and white, only a grimy grey through which the novel’s characters grope for relief from the relentless horror that envelops them.
The story unfolds during and immediately after the Battle of Gettysburg, which lasted for three long days. The statistics are grim: 8,000 died on the battlefield with another 27,000 wounded. McDaniels set himself a difficult task in attempting to humanize those numbers; he has risen to the occasion. The characters in the novel are individuals with their own stories, brought together through the vagaries of a war that, in its time, was the most destructive the world had seen.
Two soldiers—one from each army—introduce us to the battle and it’s horrific aftermath. McDaniels describes, in sometimes gruesome detail, just what it might be like to lie in a field full of dead, wounded, and dying men—not to mention the scavengers (both animal and human). Even the weather, a supposedly disinterested element, seems to conspire against the soldiers and add to their misery.
The book, though, really revolves around those not intimately involved in the fighting, especially the surgeons who do their best to save the wounded. Those wounds are described in clinical detail. And the descriptions of surgery carried out in primitive conditions, before germ theory and universal hand washing, are equally detailed and not for the squeamish. (The surprise is not that so many died, but that anyone survived.) These surgeons are also wounded, by their past and present lives, and their individual tales are woven through and around the story of the two wounded soldiers.
This relentless misery, one of the book’s most salient characteristics, makes it difficult reading at times. Some relief is provided by snake oil salesman Jupiter Jones, who has gathered a crew of misfits to help sell his miracle cure: Jupiter’s Oil. But even that is short lived and the story soon returns to the battlefield.
Despite the death and decay that permeate the novel, it is a compelling read, largely because of the skill with which McDaniels unfolds his characters’ stories, day by day, minute by minute. Equally skillful is the manner in which he brings together all the characters and crafts dramas within dramas against the backdrop of the American Civil War and this one important battle. So compelling are those stories, the war fades into the background as the fate of individuals hang in the balance.
Reviewed by Brid Nowlan for IndieReader