Blessed Are the Peacemakers by Joe W. Smith
reviewed by Deb Houdek Rule for Civil War St. Louis
Joe W. Smith, author of “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” tackles the difficult subject of the bushwhacker war in the Ozark countryside of Arkansas near the Missouri-Arkansas border during the Civil War. He does this in a fiction novel with a blending of history and legend that reaches back to the very dawn of time.
“In the beginning…” the book begins with creation itself, a seemingly strange place to start a Civil War novel, yet as Smith draws together the threads of geological development, and human development, in the Ozarks he sets the stage for all later events. The first major character to whom we’re introduced is, of all things, a pack rat living in a silver-laden cave. This lowly pack rat, and its descendants, evolve into interesting, unique characters that keep reappearing until providing a vital role at the novel’s climax.
This is only the first of the book’s many, diverse characters whose lives and histories are traced back to their distant, ancestral pasts. Not shying away from controversial areas or characters, Smith follows the story of a maimed Confederate soldier with a ‘poor white trash’ past; a Zulu youth captured by slave traders and brought into bitterly resented slavery (historically unlikely but the author acknowledges that and makes it work); an American Indian who had been displaced from his Kentucky home by white settlers; slaveowners, kind and cruel; slaves who had been broken into submission and others who strove for freedom, some by joining the Confederates and some by joining the Unionists. He also brings in the bushwhackers whose background could be from any side and whose loyalties are often only to themselves, as well as the farmers—men, women, and children—struggling to survive amidst the killing and pillaging. In telling their individual stories, Smith creates an overall picture of the Ozark area, its people, how it came to be as it was during the war, and beyond with vignettes reaching into the present with descendents of many of these characters showing in some measure the far-reaching impact of the generations distant war.
The characters, regardless of the side they were on, were handled in a balanced, fair manner that is greatly to the author’s credit. The good guys weren’t all purely good, and the bad guys were seldom purely evil. Indeed, in keeping with the convoluted nature of war in this area, it is often difficult to tell exactly with which side any character’s sympathies lay. Survival became the rule for most, a thing unrelated to the grand political and social issues being fought over by the armies to the east.
The story, itself, was an interesting read that kept me up late several nights. Though sometimes puzzled by the direction the storytelling was taking, I always wanted to continue on to see where the author was leading me and how some seemingly odd sections would lead into the rest of the story (such as when the author managed to bring a centuries past Viking battle into the thread of one character’s past).
“Blessed Are the Peacemakers” is not small in scope though it ultimately focuses on a small area of the Ozarks. Interestingly, most of the violent action takes place off-screen, with the emphasis being on how the people cope with the aftereffects. This struck me oddly as the first battle scene was bypassed, yet as the story progressed this technique worked. Fights and battles are fleeting, their impact on the participants lasts.
Smith includes several historical figures, including Nathan Bedford Forrest and Wild Bill Hickock. Though his historical research seems to be sound, and is certainly far-reaching, there are a few errors that slip through. Most of these are relatively minor time-line errors involving the more famous of the Missouri bushwhacker/guerrillas—the James, Youngers, and Bloody Bill Anderson with the first two becoming famous far before they really did and the latter said to be dead several times before he really was. An historical notes section at the end—unusual, but appreciated, in a fiction novel—clarifies many areas as to what is documented history, what is legend, and what is the author’s own creation.
The writing sometimes lacks polish, with the point-of-view jumping from character to character without warning. The timeline of events is often confusing. There was also a tendency to use flashbacks without making it entirely clear when we reach present time again. Overall, however, the flavor of the writing style overcomes these technical writing issues.
This is to be a considered a recommended novel on its own merits but especially so for those interested in the Civil War in the Trans-Mississippi where good fiction is rare.