MEIER: Suite Harmonic (2011)
Suite Harmonic: A Civil War Novel of Rediscovery by Emily Meier. Sky Spinner Press, 2011. Paper, ISBN: 0983669201. $24.95.
Emily Meier’s heavily researched Suite Harmonic: A Civil War Novel of Rediscovery imaginatively recounts the Given family history—in particular John Given Jr. and sister Catherine (Kate)—from 1862 through 1898. She narrates in an engaging counter-point style both John’s experiences in battle with the 25th Indiana Infantry and Kate’s observations of the post-utopian experiment of a home front that is New Harmony, Indiana. An historical novel, Meier’s work synthesizes an impressive array of primary and secondary sources in such a way that hits on, though does not fully develop, greater themes such as national identity for Irish immigrants, abolitionism, and the dreariness of war.
Meier began her research with John Given’s letters and embarked on this project in order “to reconstruct his world with as much fidelity as possible … [and] to internalize the facts of that world in order to make the shimmering story implicit in them emerge with all the force of imagined life” (542). Heading each chapter are a few lines from her source material and a citation. As an employee of the State Archives of North Carolina, I observe this sort of highly localized, primary-source family research firsthand. It is easy to fetishize these delicate documents, which I and my colleagues quite literally keep on life support for far longer than they were perhaps meant to exist. These sources allow researchers to take a personal ownership of their past. Whereas I normally only bear witness to small victories, every once in a while there’s that moment of awe and changed perception: “She was the adulterer? Wait … and ‘known to have many indiscretions!’” I often wonder what happens to those plot lines. Having few stories of my own family—and fewer that are credible—I can only imagine the intrigue and sense of accomplishment intrinsic in the weaving together of such a personal story.
All this taken into account, however, remaining engulfed in Meier’s work was difficult. The aforementioned quotes and citations lend undue authority to the chapters that follow. Much as I wanted to become emotionally invested in the triumphs and defeats faced by the principal actors, my training as an historian and archivist could not keep my disbelief suspended for long. Did John lose his religion? Maybe he did sleep with prostitutes, but does it truly matter? These and other plot points exemplify the friction caused by this particular brand of historical fiction—what is inconsequential to the reader versus the family historian. As the reader of a Civil War novel, I found myself far more interested in Kate as a potential first wave feminist, John’s journey from Irishman to becoming acceptable within white society, as well as the backstory of New Harmony—which is truly fascinating—than with John Given’s involvement in the Battle of Fort Donelson or his clerking with the Army of the East through the end of the war. And I am particularly more interested in that Indiana experiment’s intellectual history than with John’s sexuality, repressed or otherwise.
One can justifiably argue that it is unfair to critique the author of a novel for her lack of sophisticated historical analysis. I counter that it is equally problematic for the author to contend that she was trying to reconstruct a history with “fidelity” and then invent a black character to exist briefly while John explored his feelings about race. Suite Harmonic is an engaging read and heavily researched, but Meier’s incredulous lack of historical relativity cannot be overlooked. As an author, she is far too personally invested in John being a “good guy” in 21st century terms, as exemplified in the following excerpt of Meier’s answer to an interview question about race and the Civil War: “I knew that, as much as the letters drew me in, there was no way I was going to write a book with a racist as a sympathetic main character. If the letters had had a smoking gun of racism, I would have altered John’s personal history to ignore that, or even abandoned the whole project of writing about him” [available here]. Hamilton the “Negro clerk” exists solely to “silently tap his foot” and do the same work that John does so that the latter may realize that African Americans can be intelligent, too (344). Fidelity to the Civil War’s source material cannot involve reducing the history of American race relations to such simple terms.
To review historical fiction, I believe, is to engage in a no-win situation. What are the rules? The genre purposefully blurs fact with fiction. My bias lies on the side of the historian and while I can appreciate fiction, Meier could greatly improve her work after a careful study of David Hackett Fischer’s Historian’s Fallacies. For instance, she interprets John’s criticisms of Abraham Lincoln as indications of potential racism and/or an anti-abolitionist sentiment. The fact that Meier found a photograph of Lincoln in John’s papers, she hints, can only mean that John accepted slavery’s evils in the end (see the above-cited interview). This reductionism is probably a consequence of the mythologizing of Lincoln and the Civil War, itself. The reader hears such 21st century commentary when John supposedly reflects, in 1898 and in the third-person, “What, after all, had he known of the politics of America when he arrived at twenty-one? When had he ever owned a slave? How was he accountable for an institution he could never have imagined, let alone have fostered? And for that matter, when he had finally begun to know a black man in Hamilton the clerk, hadn’t he acknowledged that he didn’t feel his superior?” (525). I’m sure Hamilton appreciates the notion.
Carolyn Chesarino is a Records Management Analyst with the State Archives of North Carolina.