Two new books from historical novelist John Wilson take young readers behind the scenes of two very different wars. Death on the River, set at the end of the American Civil War, follows the exploits of Confederate soldier Jake Clay. Emulating his heroic older brother Jim, who died the previous year at the Battle of Antietam, Jake enlists at just 17. In his first battle, however, he is captured and sent to a crowded prison camp where murder is commonplace and diseased prisoners count themselves lucky if they can catch a rat to eat. Taking up with a manipulative man named Billy, Jake is forced to rationalize his feelings of guilt over the crimes Billy commits to keep them both alive.
Wilson paints an engrossing picture of the brutal life of these soldiers. The story, which is loosely based on first-person accounts of the war, at times descends into excruciating horror, such as when Jake has to cut off a fellow prisoner’s diseased toes so that the prisoner will be able to walk. Most young readers, especially boys, will be fascinated by Jake’s adventure, and will likely find it shocking to learn that anyone could endure such hell.
One quibble about this otherwise excellent book: nowhere does it detail the reasons for the Civil War. Aside from one passing reference to black soldiers, there is no mention of the issues that caused the war. Wilson is certainly adept enough to have addressed the subject, so the omission seems peculiar.
If Death on the River comes up short on historical context, Wilson’s other war book this season overflows with the stuff. The first novel in a proposed trilogy, Crusade is an astonishingly nuanced and masterfully told story of two teenage boys who become embroiled in the Roman Catholic Church’s 13th-century crusade against the Cathars, a pacifist, itinerant Christian sect in southern France that followed the teachings of Jesus but did not believe in his divinity. In a foreword, Wilson explains that an actual crusade was waged against them, leading to their complete eradication.
Wilson’s dual protagonists, both Catholics raised in an orphanage, start out as close friends but are slowly pulled to opposite sides of the conflict. John, a liberal-minded realist who aspires to be an artist, is drawn to the Cathars and their love of knowledge. Peter, a conservative paranoid beset by horrible visions of death, becomes a monk and a protégé to the Papacy’s leader of the crusade. Catholic crusaders are portrayed as thoroughly despicable and evil here, while the Cathars are gentle and noble. Sieges of castles abound, with grisly swordplay and fascinating explanations of the machinery used to breach walls. Characters such as a horrible axe-wielding knight, a rat-faced inquisitor, a wizened Moor, and a doe-eyed Andalusian beauty fill out the cast nicely.
Religious philosophy is at times thickly applied here, but there’s enough intrigue and action to propel most readers through that material. Hardline believers may take exception to some content; indeed, the “secret” of the subtitle is that the Cathars possessed the actual Gospel of Jesus, written by Jesus after the crucifixion and proving he was not divine. In a particularly fascinating manner, John is entrusted with the gospel, and when he leaves France for Moorish Spain at the end of the tale, one can’t help wondering where his special burden will lead him in book two.