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the perilous road

18 may 2015

The Perilous Road by William O. Steele, a Newbery Honor novel in 1959, brings a wealth of local color and historical detail to a well-focused coming-of-age story.

The Perilous Road is also a war-is-hell story, and pulls no punches in its depictions of violence and sudden death – especially for a 1950s kids' book. Yet ultimately it isn't like The Red Badge of Courage or other such war-is-hell tales where the protagonist becomes involved in the uneasy moral implications of warfare. Chris Brabson, Steele's hero, ventures into the maze of wartime actions where nobody is innocent, but emerges exempt from responsibility. It's as if his author gives him a chance to try on the ambivalences and potential guilt of the war novel, and then cuts him free, his slate clean but his lessons learned.

Chris is a country kid in 1863 Tennessee; he doesn't mind hard work and he loves hunting and other aspects of outdoor life. The problem is he lives in a war zone. Steele captures a very plausible picture of civilian life in a shifting, contested area of contact between armies. Life goes on despite foragers and raiding parties and ever-shifting columns and front lines. It's a civil war, fought on all levels from malicious mischief to Napoleonic battle, and in contested Eastern Tennessee, that means families divided against themselves.

It's a cliché of the Civil War story, brother fighting brother, though I always have to remind myself that child readers don't yet know the clichés that I do. In the case of The Perilous Road it's literally executed. Chris is a fervent rebel, but his brother Jethro up and joins the Union army. Chris can't be mad at the kindly Jethro, but he chafes at his own family's equanimity about the situation. Their parents don't even take it too hard when some Yankees raid the place and take their horse and all their food. What's wrong with these people? Why can't they be more like Chris's fortysomething friend Silas, a bushwhacker and super-spy who's fixing to derail the Union war effort singlehanded?

When Chris sees a Union supply train coming up an isolated valley, he can't wait to tell Silas to call down an ambush on the Yankees. But then he realizes that Jethro is driving one of the wagons, and that his patriotic impulse will mean his brother's death. Naturally Chris charges into the middle of the action to save his brother.

I won't reveal the plot twists (it's a well-told story) except to say that much of the melodrama of the story turns out to have been in Chris's imagination. But the violence of it is real. Jethro survives the Confederate ambush, but many another boy's brother dies in the slaughter. Chris and the reader alike get to reset their feelings and principles, and grow into a more sensitive appreciation of the horrors of war.

Steele, William O. The Perilous Road. 1958. Orlando: Harcourt, 2004. PZ 7 .S8148Pe