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Review: Fallen Land, by Taylor Brown
St. Martin’s, 2015. 276 pp. $26

It’s 1865, and the Confederacy is on its last legs. Brigandage rules swaths of the Deep South, unleashing “foragers” from either army (or neither), who plunder farms or towns, hunt runaways for bounty fees, and satisfy their lusts for blood or female flesh. Callum, a member of one such Confederate gang, already has a checkered past, even at age fifteen. Of Irish birth, parents dead, he’s worked as a crewman on a Confederate ship running the Union blockade; been shipwrecked; killed men older than himself; and become an accomplished horse thief.

Shermans March to the Sea, Alexander Hay Ritchie, 1868

Sherman’s March to the Sea, Alexander Hay Ritchie, 1868 (Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain in the U.S.)

One day, however, Callum tries to break free. He steals his colonel’s stallion and makes off with Ava, a girl two years older than he, whom the gang captured as booty, and whom the colonel has taken for his own. Ava, though wary, goes willingly with Callum, because she sees no other future. But in the firefight whose confusion allows the pair to escape, the colonel is killed, and Callum knows the others won’t rest until they run Ava and him to ground.

What follows is a fast-paced, compelling story that never flags for an instant. The fugitives suffer intense physical privations, endure injuries, make difficult moral choices, and endure hair-raising escapes. Their greatest ally is their horse, Reiver, a loyal, hard-working beast, perhaps the truest soul in this book.

Brown’s often beautiful prose helps propel the story:

Here and there a spurt of the brightest otherworldly red marked the hillside. The color explosive, lifting, like a hemorrhage from the earth. Callum looked hard for these sights, and they made him ache. He knew the falling land was telling him something, and the message yearned in his throat to be spoken. But he would not speak it. Could not. When Ava fell asleep on the back of the horse, he took her cool white hand in his for a long moment. Her palm was calloused like a boy’s, her finger bones delicate. He placed her hand back in the pocket of his coat, where she kept it warm.

It’s a lovely scene, but a good editor would have caught two mistakes here, the type that pepper this novel. Calloused should be callused, and I don’t believe Callum, who has little formal education, would even know the word hemorrhage. I don’t mean to be picky. Brown has painted a vivid narrative that ranges over a landscape he knows and loves, and which he renders in gripping detail. Nevertheless, it’s startling, especially given such skill, to run across misused words, those that sound too modern, or alien concepts. For instance, I don’t believe Ava when she talks about Charles Darwin or the rather baldly stated theme she derives from his theories. And speaking of theme, I think the reader already gets that in this shamelessly bloody world of 1865 Georgia, the only thing that matters is love; the characters need not spell it out as they do.

Unfortunately, that love is more complicated than Brown allows. I hate to say so, because Ava and Callum are sweet together, a winning pair, and I understand Brown’s desire to rescue redemption from the terrors he’s so faithfully rendered. But Fallen Land, despite its gory, realistic grounding, sometimes reads like a story cleaned up, with characters groomed to appeal. It’s not just that certain fight scenes work out too smoothly (or that, early on, Callum receives serious facial injuries that heal quickly, without trace). Nor is it only that the two main characters seldom have occasion to express their attitudes about race, and when they do, seem more like abolitionists than Confederate sympathizers. Rather, it’s that the narrative has handed Ava and Callum to one another too easily.

Whether the colonel takes Ava by brute force or implied threat isn’t clear. But rape is rape, and what’s more, she’s pregnant by him. Yet despite this abuse–and a pretense of a hard exterior–she craves love and tenderness and readily accepts them from the next man who treats her decently, even if he’s a boy. Nothing beneath the surface is allowed to intervene, so that, when Ava worries–but once–that she’s carrying another man’s child, Callum empathically but naively replies that she should just pretend it’s his. Case closed.

I don’t know why Brown chose this path. Ava would have made much more sense as a character, and heightened the tension tenfold, had she held herself aloof, making Callum wonder whether he’s risking his life for a dream of happiness with her that he can’t fulfill. His insecurity would have added a fresh dimension to the novel. Then, too, Callum kills repeatedly, yet never seems troubled by it, though he has bloody dreams involving Reiver, Ava, and their pursuers. I get that he’s grown up too fast to tear himself to shreds over these killings. Yet, like Ava, he exists too much in the moment, in which the past has no place in his psychology.

Fallen Land, despite its promise, fails to deliver. But I expect to hear more from Taylor Brown.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.