Coal Black Horse is the story of Robey Childs, in 1863, sent by his mother to retrieve his father, off fighting in the Civil War, and bring him home. Robey’s mother had learned that Stonewall Jackson had been killed, sees it as an omen of the war’s end, and sends Robey to stop his father from dying in a senseless battle. The book is full of these kinds of decisions, ones with a slippery morality, with a built-in sacrifice.
The 14-year-old Robey laconically obeys his mother and sets off to find his father. Along the way, he is given the Coal Black Horse—left behind by a dead man—by a merchant on the road. From here, once Robey has left the comfort of home and neighbors, the lessons come quick and harsh. He encounters death at every turn, and where there isn’t death there is unspeakable suffering and lawlessness and carnage. Robey, young both in years and experience—we get the feeling he’s rarely been away from his home, if at all—cannot figure out what to make of all the death and pain around him.
He does, however, come to eventually recognize trouble before it is upon him, thanks to the Coal Black Horse. The title animal often tries to warn Robey, sensing when something bad is coming, but early on Robey doesn’t know to heed the horse’s manner. As a result, he is nearly killed at one point and, after surviving, sees countless tragedies. He watches as a man rapes a small girl. He gets caught in the middle of a battle, watching canons blow off the heads and limbs of men with an alarming ease. Along the way, Robey’s thoughts begin to change. He begins to think like he understands death, like he understands survival, good and bad, right and wrong.
But Coal Black Horse is no simple education tale. Robey does not learn the ways of the world, understand them, and become a better person for all the trials he’s survived. What we see instead, in this exquisite novel, is the story of a boy learning a man’s lessons. And while we see him figuring the lessons out in part, he rarely fully grasps the notion of death and right and wrong, and lacks the maturity to understand the consequences of his actions.
It is a dangerous thing for someone to claim to understand right and wrong and act accordingly. And it is in that idea that Olmstead finds much of his tension for this novel. We see Robey grappling with major ideas, trying to figure out the crumbling world around him and his place in it. In the end, his lessons drive him to violence, a violence that we can’t always agree with, but which also hardens him enough to continue his journey through this world.
What Olmstead does so well in this novel—and what makes Coal Black Horse so brilliant—is navigate the rough waters of the historical novel. Olmstead crafts a world, and its people, from a careful and economic use of detail. Rather than bog us down with Googled historical facts—facts that remind us of the Civil War, but pull us out of the world of the novel—Olmstead uses syntax and mood to establish a 19th-century world in a country consumed by war. The syntax here is not antiquated, but elegiac and dreamlike.
For such a slim volume—just over 200 pages—Olmstead achieves an astonishing breadth in Coal Black Horse. It is a world and set of characters writ large with the simplest collection of tools. Spare, poetic lines render ghostly a world where death is too commonplace to haunt, but too pervasive to ignore. And in the middle of this hopeless world, Olmstead gives us a hopeful gift: the bittersweet Robey, who comes to chillingly accept the bloody world around him, while still striving for survival and, maybe, redemption. The tension in each line of this novel is in Olmstead’s ability to craft sentences both concentrated with revealing detail and soaked in the muddy confusion of our main character.
The mysterious nature of the language reflects not only Robey’s youthful confusion but also a world unmoored by civil war. The time of the book is a time where things will no longer be as they are, but are not yet to where they will be. And the murky time in which Robey lives suggests something of the youth of America. Olmstead explores that idea in the perfect way, through this flawed and conflicted boy. A boy who means well but does not always know when he does wrong. Olmstead focuses on these personal dilemmas—of Robey, of soldiers scrambling for their own survival or holing up until the waning war passes—and avoids any overarching moral discussion of slavery or war. Any judgments we get of these things come from Robey’s experience and are convincingly fragmented and confused.
In the end, Robey does become a man, but only in definition. He’s learned all he needs, and we see him in the end of the novel—now the head of a family, in more ways than one—a little wiser for all the death and destruction he’s seen. But it’ll be long after the achingly beautiful close of Coal Black Horse before Robey fully understands what it all means. And, as the ebbing war hasn’t quite ended by the close of the book, perhaps Olmstead thinks the country has a ways to go before it understands its actions. Maybe none of our stories end with perfect understanding.