A cache of old letters. Research to uncover a secret or reconstruct a life. Narration of the search itself. These are the familiar elements of fiction from Henry James's The Aspern Papers to modern novels like The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish. Novelist, short-story writer, and poet, Elaine Fowler Palencia didn't invent such a story; she lived it. The result is On Rising Ground, her narrative of the life of one ordinary man and his experience as a private in the Confederate Army. Ostensibly narrow in focus, it is also wide in scope and written in response to the questions a novelist as well as a family historian would ask.
Twenty-eight letters written to his wife between March 1862 and May 1863 by her ancestor John M. Douthit were kept by the family. Some are now lost, but luckily photocopies survive. Palencia transcribed and annotated them. By using supplementary materials deftly, she has now written a biography that keeps a tight grip on one family's story while setting it understandably within the larger historical context. From genealogy, it expands into an account that allows readers to imagine viscerally what John M. Douthit went through before his death at the Battle of Vicksburg and to learn much that he, poor man, could never know. Professional historians will welcome the letters themselves as new primary material. Other readers with an interest in what the rank and file experienced in the Civil War will be grateful for Palencia's clear narrative and vivid charactersizations.
Whether she ever incorporates her own experience of research into a story or writes an historical novel remains to be seen. But she has already brought her poet's sensibility to one of the letters, which she adapted into a poem and published in in her chapbook, How to Prepare Escargots. So many emotions, so many ironies and sorrows when you dwell on every seemingly mundane thought! With permission it is reproduced here (NB: Hipoe is a period term for melancholy):
Letter from a Dead Man
Camped at Strawberry Plains
52nd Georgia Co H
August 21, 1862
My dear Companion, I seat myself to drop you a few lines
to let you know that I am well at the present time
hoping these lines will come to hand
and find you well and doing well.
I received two letters from you yesterday
and was glad to hear you had gotten to bear safe,
you state you had another daughter
which of course I was glad to hear
though I would much rather it had been a boy.
You wanted me to send it a name,
I have no name to send it at this time
you can name it to suit your selves
and I will be satisfied.
I also received four dollars in one of the letters
which was most gladly received
as well as the pair of socks.
I will come home as soon as I can
from this cruel war
but do not know when that will be.
You must take good care of your self
and do not take the hipoe
for I am coming home if I live