That Fateful Lightning

Written by Richard Parry
Review by Ellen Keith

A dying and destitute Ulysses S. Grant must write his memoirs to bring financial security to his wife and family. Mark Twain will publish them, selling by subscription, and promising Grant seventy percent of the profits. The tension in the novel comes from Grant’s efforts to stay alive to finish his work.

The narrative alternates between the ailing Grant’s push to complete his work and his memories of certain battles in the Civil War. Battle scenes are depicted in a realistic way, although not graphically, reminding the reader that war is not to be glorified. Grant is drawn as an unprepossessing figure, yet a military mind to be reckoned with. He was constantly being undermined and spied upon by politicians in Washington, and it is enjoyable to see him prevail over their backstabbing with his military victories. However, the prose in many scenes has a tendency towards over exposition, as in one instance when Grant describes his father-in-law to his wife as “Colonel Dent, your father.” Other factual details are inserted with the same lack of subtlety. And, despite the character sketches, the only characters who are rendered vividly are General Sherman and the reporter Sylvanus Cadwallader who accompanies Grant’s division and on one memorable occasion attempts to cover up the alcoholic Grant’s drinking spree. Otherwise, characters tend to blend together, one incompetent general indistinguishable from the next. Even Mark Twain fails to come to life, appearing just as an answer to Grant’s financial prayers.

The narrative concentrates on the military stratagems of the war rather than why the war was being fought. However, mention is made of Grant’s former friends from West Point who fight on the other side and the fact that “their cause must be the poorest that ever surfaced on the face of this earth.” Military enthusiasts may enjoy this book, but to others its appeal is limited. Not recommended.