Review by Bruce Trinque, Civil War Writer
A Civil War Novel Out of the Ordinary
The dramatic device of “brother against brother” has long been a cliché of novels and movies about the American Civil War. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I approached David H. Jones’s “Two Brothers: One North, One South.” Yes, this novel indeed centers about one Confederate and one Union brother, but it is also a novel firmly based upon fact and not merely melodramatic invention. The two brothers of the title were actual 19th century American brothers: William Prentiss of the 2nd Maryland Infantry (CSA) and Clifton Prentiss of the 6th Maryland Infantry (USA), and Jones’s novel is closely drawn from the two men’s genuine histories, from the months preceding the outbreak of war to the days following its end. Both men saw hard service in the Eastern Theater of the war, allowing the author to construct a fairly comprehensive survey of military events, the scope of the story being broadened when appropriate by reference to the two brothers’ friends and acquaintances.
A factor which is simultaneously a hurdle and a strength of the novel is that the characters speak like characters in a 19th century novel: formal, ornate, sometimes flowery language quite unlike that of our current day. This sustains an atmosphere that clearly places the story in a different era, giving the novel an unusual feeling of authenticity, but also might be an obstacle to those readers unable or unwilling to cope with the emotional distance created by that language.
The story is told in an episodic manner spread out over four years of tumultuous events; each segment, however, is clearly identified with regard to time and place, helping the reader maintain orientation. In the first half of the book, the story is clearly weighted towards the Confederate side of history, but the balance swings more towards a Union perspective as the war goes on. What could have been a magnolia blossom and mint juleps Southern-romanticized picture of the American Civil War instead ends up a more evenhanded portrait, examining how the perception of issues altered over time and how Secessionist dreams turned dry and barren by the end of the war.
One unexpected element of the novel is the use of Walt Whitman as a major character and narrator when his duties at an Army hospital bring him into close contact with both brothers (it is historical fact that both were severely wounded in one of the last engagements of the war).