Wildwood Boys: A Novel

Written by James Carlos Blake
Review by Rachel A Hyde

William (Bill) Anderson lived peacefully enough on his parents’ farm together with his brother and three sisters. They were a musical family, fond of poetry, and both Bill and his brother Jim were partial to a spot of horse stealing. Their lives – and those of their friends – would probably have passed unremarkably enough but the Civil War was to change all that. The Kansas-Missouri borderlands where they lived were split between Kansas Unionist “redlegs” and Anderson’s beloved Missouri Confederate “bushwackers,” the most notorious band of which was led by a man named Quantrill. It was this desperate group that Anderson was himself to join, spreading terror (and inspiring a lot of adoration, depending on which side you were on) and earning him the name of “Bloody Bill” following great personal tragedy.

James Carlos Blake wasn’t actually alive in those days, but reading this novel I was almost convinced that he had been. It is by turns tender and heartwarming, then it plunges the reader into the hellish brutality and suffering that any war – but especially a civil war – engenders. Although there are monstrous acts, this is not a tale of monsters but of ordinary people driven to their limits and losing part (although rarely all) of their humanity. So far it all sounds rather depressing, but it isn’t. There are ample occasions for laughter, a lot of camaraderie and good times aplenty as the characters demonstrate that where there is life there is hope. Acts of bravery are not just confined to the men, but above all what never fails to shock is the intense hatred one side had for another and how brother was turned against brother and friend against friend. The characters live vibrantly and the whole tale hangs around in the memory long after the book has been closed. I’ve previously reviewed another of Blake’s novels (The Pistoleer) about the West’s most famous gunfighter, but this goes deeper than that yet still manages to tell a mesmerizing tale in an appropriate voice. Highly recommended.