Some stories are drawn in black and white because the black is so deep and so dark that we could not bear to read them without the light to keep us from drowning. Yes, I know I'm mixing metaphors, but I just finished reading The Sentinels of Andersonville and I'm feeling a bit scrambled. The Civil War prison camp at Andersonville was a piece of hell on earth, and reading about it at all would be unbearable without the counterpoint of the genuinely good people who tried to do something about it.
Tracy Groot's historical novel was inspired by an incident during the Civil War, when some concerned people from Americus, Georgia, having learned of the plight of the starving prisoners of war in nearby Fort Sumter, took up a collection of food and tried to deliver it to feed their starving enemies. They were turned away, their food undelivered. Groot imagines a story inspired by them and the other individuals who did what they could to stand against the evil among them.
The descriptions in the novel of the conditions in the camp – and I suspect that Groot spared us some of the worst – are quite simply hellacious. We can count ourselves lucky that words do not convey actual smells. But the novel focuses on the people of integrity who tried in their various ways to do something about it and while they weren't able to eradicate the evil they were at least able to alleviate it a bit. And because we spend the bulk of our time with them rather than down in the camp (although we do spend some time there), it becomes bearable reading. Not just bearable, inspiring. The deep friendships and romances that form between the people battling vicious hatred, the ones who can see the human face of their enemies and who bear the reproach of being branded traitors for doing so, balance out the horror of those who knew exactly what was going on and didn't care, or worse, actively supported it. In real life, the commander of the camp, Captain Henry Wirz, was put to death for war crimes in 1865.
I enjoyed The Sentinels of Andersonville very much. Groot is a skilled, award-winning author who wins praise from almost every quarter, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, and is one of authors whose books I buy as soon as I see the name on the cover. I expected good things, and I got them. I smiled, I laughed, I fought back tears. And perhaps more important, it made me wonder what I should not be looking away from and what I can do about it. Yes, I'm afraid this book will do that to you.