Looking at Atlanta now, you might never know it burned down. A hotbed of commerce and hip college hangouts along Georgia Tech’s and Georgia State’s main thoroughfares, Atlanta is a bustling major hub for southgoing traffic, cross-country flight layovers, and artists spending afternoons at Goat Farm art showings. The 21-acre Centennial Olympic Park, built to house the 1996 Olympics, circles around the titanic Georgia Aquarium; and tourists flood to the World of Coca-Cola and Martin Luther King’s, Jr., birthplace, while the locals head to Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping-Pong Emporium, where you can have a drink at the TV-less bar, peruse Sister Louisa’s art gallery, play ping-pong in Monday-night tournaments, and dress in a choir robe to sing Wednesday-night karaoke accompanied by a church organ.
But along the old cross ties of the historic Western & Atlantic Railroad, you can still find torn-up tracks and the occasional landmark solemnized by a brown copper sign greened with verdigris and neglect. Here, too, you may encounter the romantic devotees who still frequent Margaret Mitchell’s house where she famously penned the timeless Gone with the Wind, and further on, Oakland Cemetery where the author rests alongside 3,000 Confederate and 16 Union soldiers.
You might be too young to have that image forever burned into your mind of Rhett Butler, afraid he’s going to die, turning to Scarlett O’Hara before he flees to join the war whilst the flames of Atlanta burn around Tara, and saying, “For I do love you, Scarlett, because we are so much alike, renegades, both of us, dear, and selfish rascals.” These words that should mark a moment of romance turn into a moment of cowardice and selfishness.
They could also fit easily within the pages of Georgia native Taylor Brown’s novel, Fallen Land, set against the backdrop of the Burning of Atlanta and Sherman’s March to the Sea, featuring two young lovers, renegades, so much alike, and selfish rascals, besides. What you won’t find within these pages, however, is cowardice, either from the characters or from the author. What you will find is heart. Heart that rages against all the environment and destructive elements inveigling it to cease its beating.
In 1864, Atlanta was a city vital to commerce and transportation for both the North and the South, but its importance as a major railway hub and thriving manufacturing center ultimately meant the city’s doom as a Confederate stronghold. Its fiercely contested battles culminated in the Atlanta Campaign under the direction of Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman. In the early summer of 1864, Sherman bombarded the city with over 100,000 projectiles, and by July, his Union troops had found multiple passages over the Chattahoochee River, and the Confederate troops had been driven back to Atlanta’s far outskirts. After a final, intense five-week siege, Confederate General John Bell Hood evacuated the city on September 1, demolishing the railroads and supplies he had to leave behind, including a reserve supply train of over 80 boxcars that were stocked with munitions, causing what was quite likely the loudest explosion of the Civil War. When Sherman surmounted the city, he razed whatever Hood had left for him to destroy.
Two months later, Sherman’s troops marched out, on the infamous 300-mile March to the Sea, lighting in its path all that would burn. Of 3,600 houses that had stood at the city center, only 400 remained. Sherman said in his memoirs, “We naturally paused to look back on the scenes of our past battles. Behind us lay Atlanta, smoldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.”
And of this, Taylor Brown writes:
… before them, a firestorm raged upon the city of their hope. A hundred fires, a thousand. Every last thing ablaze save a single mountain of bald stone upon which great mirrored flames reeled and surged, the city below it thrust heavenward in snarling fury, in leaping spires and spits of flame, a fortress raised up in terrible light. […] A railway, or what was left of one. Massive stacks of torn-up rail ties were piled, smoldering, as far as they could see in both directions. Blue towers of smoke hung over them, and where the tracks curved out of sight, yet more smoke spiraled out of the trees…
This is the backdrop of Fallen Land. It takes us half the book to get here, but everything that comes before is marching toward this moment, then beyond it to the sea.
The protagonist, Callum, a 15-year-old seasoned horse thief, is fleeing a band of marauders out to collect the bounty on his head after his suspected involvement in a murder while rescuing Ava—a teenaged girl who could do just fine without him, but would rather be with him than alone. Both orphans of the war, the two find fast kindred spirits in one another and must lean on each other through gunshot wounds, sexual assault, and a slew of near-death encounters, until their only remaining hope is to lose the bounty hunters in the ruination, wreckage, and violence that is the Burning of Atlanta and the subsequent March to the coast, where Callum says he has family that might take them in. Readers will enjoy that both main protagonists are equal and well-fleshed out and that Ava is no cardboard stock figure who exists merely to be a love interest. Additionally, the landscape is surveyed and scrutinized through the eyes of a Georgia-born Eagle Scout and lover of the Southlands who has seen and felt firsthand the rain, the wilderness, the darkness, the very lonesomeness, beauty, and expansiveness of the land he’s penned, and it shows.
The story is linear and doesn’t pull any unexpected punches, but it’s a tried-and-true trail that’s worth traveling. In Willa Cather’s O, Pioneers!, she says, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” That fierceness abounds here. In the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, Fallen Land’s beauty lies in the storytelling, not the story. Beneath every line, there is humanity. And when you mix the ugliness of war and destruction with the tenderness of humanity and compassion, you get something truly remarkable.
The story, however, falters in that it is simplistic with only one through-line and no major subplots to intersect the main plot. Since we know how the background and environment must end, according to history, then all that’s left for wiggle room is the story and the prose that tells that story. Where the prose excels here, the story has a tendency to become predictable in its simplicity and to repeat some images and words that could have been cut back, detracting slightly from the element of surprise. The amateur historian in me would have liked to have seen more of the war and to have had it weave into a bigger, more integral part of the story, rather than for it to be a supplied backdrop on which the climax hangs, and little else. While it did create an exciting climax, its major incorporation near the middle of the book made the first half seem almost separate from the war, as if it existed in a vacuum, rather than in the heightened center of battleground areas at the bloodiest ending stages of the whole conflict. Even though the beginning also deals with soldiers, the militaristic actions came across individually, not as part of a larger whole, and at times, this felt too convenient for the sake of the plot and forced the competent prose to work harder to make up for it.
Initially inspired by the folk ballad, “When First unto This Country,” Brown’s novel reads like the song that birthed it. The prose is rhythmic and lilting, even as it is dense; and when sinking into repeating refrains, the tune is still carried relentlessly and uniformly throughout. The history is spot-on, well-researched, and as much a part of the song as the story itself. Brown’s attention to detail is prodigious, and I can flip to any page and love a line:
Always Callum was glancing over his shoulder, every ridge and shady grove pregnant with menace. Any moment their pursuers could bloom darkly upon a distant hillside, emerge out of a bottom or ravine like something loosed out of the ground.
And something has been loosed out of the ground: a Southern writer to keep your eye on. You can feel it when you walk among the gravestones of Oakland Cemetery where the ground shifts like burned ashes and the spirit of Margaret Mitchell tugs at your ankles to be remembered. When you see Rhett on the screen and he says to the room, “I think it’s hard winning a war with words, gentlemen,” perhaps you’ll be reminded instead of this war won here, on the pages of Fallen Land, not only with words, but with heart.