The Wreckage of Eden
Robert Winter presides over the wreckage of the Eden given to white European settlers as Manifest Destiny in the first part of the 19th century. He always tries to assure us he is not to blame, that he doesn’t even really believe, yet his seemingly minor role remains morally pivotal and justifying of the causes of the fall: He is a chaplain in the Union Army. First Mexicans, then natives, then Mormons who had tried to flee the US for religious freedom, feel the US army’s wrath, culminating in the fratricidal action against white men of the Confederacy. Robert’s saga is set as letters written to Emily Dickinson, a woman he thinks he loves and wants to marry; she is representing the exact other side of the white male persecution coin: a recluse in her family home under her father’s strict control. Robert probably wishes Manifest Destiny could have suffered the same fate, been locked away quiet and reserved. He has conversations with many of the era’s bright lights: Abraham Lincoln, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, John Brown, none as frustrating as the one he comes back to again and again: the woman in Amherst who often will not receive him in her parlor.
The first few pages reveal a refreshing thing: an intelligent and literary writer whose command of the language comes close to fulfilling the promise of Dickinson’s name in the blurb. I found myself ready to follow the tale anywhere. In the end, Dickinson’s place as master of the language is not threatened, however. The plot just frustrates with its moral ambiguity, the downside of the literary genre.