Sunday, April 13, 2008

Jordan County by Shelby Foote

At some point this winter, Chicago Tribune book columnist Julia Keller wrote about authors who wrote fiction and nonfiction. One of the names included was Shelby Foote. I have never taken the time to attempt his Civil War history set (we have a ten volume illustrated edition in my library), so I thought I'd try his fiction. I got Jordan County, published in 1954.

On the paperback cover is the label "A Novel." That is a mistake. I wonder if the marketing department at the publisher whipped this up without opening the book. Jordan County is collection of seven short stories set in a fictional county in Mississippi along the Mississippi River, presented in reverse chronological order. The presence of the river is about the only connecting element. Short is also a relative idea. One of the stories is 150 pages and could be called a novella.

"Child by Fever," the long short story, is a masterpiece of slowly simmering Southern tragedy. As a reader, I knew what would happen in the end because Foote told me right at the beginning, but I was as caught in the narrative as its characters. Neither they nor I could do anything about the outcome. Readers who enjoy dark family sagas will appreciate this well-crafted, symmetrical story.

The first story is set in the late 1940s or early 1950s. What the World War II veteran does in "Rain Down Home" could easily be in a story about a returnee from Vietnam or Iraq.

Of the seven stories, only "Pillar of Fire" is set during the Civil War, the era with which Foote's writings are generally associated. In it we get both Northern and Southern viewpoints in an incident of useless violence. I mourned for the needlessly destroyed cabins and plantation mansions.

Foote was a well-spoken scholar, as we saw from his commentaries on Ken Burns's Civil War documentary. He was every bit as eloquent in his fiction. I bet that Civil War history is worth reading, too.

Foote, Shelby. Jordan County. Vintage Books, 1992. ISBN 0679736166

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