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Jul312019

Gettysburg by Kevin Morris

Published by Grove Atlantic on July 2, 2019

Gettysburg might be viewed as the story of a midlife crisis, but near the end, two characters talk about engaging in a search for the profound. That conversation more accurately captures the theme of Gettysburg — the search for meaning that often happens in middle age, the search for a story to embrace that gives context to all our other stories. Perhaps it is the search for a way to escape a life of quiet desperation, a way to become one of those few people who make a difference in the way history will unfold. Or perhaps the search is for a way to accept the inevitability of death.

When John Reynolds Stanhope was a child, his family lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Stanhope (who goes by “Reynolds”) lived next to the Civil War battlefield, where he worked as a tour guide. Now he lives in Malibu and makes crazy money working for a famous television writer/producer named Norman Daley. Reynolds’ wife Stella has become a wealthy producer of spy movies. His daughter Bella is in college.

Reynolds recently invested in a Civil War costume and musket and signed up for a recreation of the Gettysburg battle that is being held in California, not the most authentic location, but a perfect place to act out a fantasy. His neighbor warns him against it because being perceived as one of “those guys” will stick with him forever. Yet Reynolds views the battle reenactment, strangely enough, as “an escape from the horror.” Given the nature of his work in Hollywood, participating in a fake war is his way to be authentic.

In the meantime, Reynolds has been pitched the idea of producing a reality TV show starring a former Playmate of the Year and a former Miss Universe from Spain, both in their 50s, who are best friends. They follow a self-help program called The Secret. They hope the reality show will empower women by revealing their depth, of which they have little, as well as their sexiness, with which they are loaded. The women are charming and funny, perfectly suited for reality TV. But is that really the kind of show that Reynolds wants to produce?

Reynolds’ drunken decision to attend the Gettysburg reenactment with the two women sparks most of the novel’s action. I love the women’s perspective on the “bunch of big old weird guys playin’ dress up,” which captures Civil War reenactments in a nutshell. Stella, Bella, and Norman eventually join the party, along with Bella’s friend Heather and the sons of the reality TV wannabes.

All of the characters, even those who are shallow but charming, are created in satisfying depth. Stella is less than understanding about Reynolds’ disappearance (particularly after she sees the former Playmate’s boobs), although she does want to understand Reynolds. Since Reynolds doesn’t understand himself, he can only quarrel in reaction to Stella’s criticisms rather than providing reassuring answers. How Reynolds’ decision to reenact the Civil War will affect their marriage creates most of the story’s dramatic tension.

The story offers explicit lessons, most of which are drawn from the Civil War. One is that no battle was ever won by quitting. Another is that Americans who whine about their lives don’t have it so bad, compared to men who marched barefoot for ten days, only to be slaughtered after arriving at the battlefield. Reynolds, like most people, is so obsessed with his own sense of dissatisfaction that he might need the Battle of Gettysburg to remind him of everything he has and to teach him what loss really means.

The Civil War came about because of a divided America. That division is a constant in contemporary life. Reynolds makes a speech near the novel’s end urging Civil War reenactors to remember, when they watch “these stupid cable channels and all the people that want to scare you into fighting the other side,” that the Civil War caused the deaths of 2 percent of the American population and caused wounds that still have not healed.

While that lesson is important, the book has a more subtle take on how Civil War enactments perpetuate the division of the country. Reenactors who wear blue feel a self-righteous sense of entitlement. They know they will win and are smug about protecting the Union. Reenactors who wear gray feel resentment that the rebels will not prevail. They don’t see themselves as perpetuating slavery but as protecting states’ rights. They fight for honor despite the knowledge that they will be vanquished. Reynolds believes that fighting for the Confederacy in a reenactment is about southern revenge that also plays out in country music and Fox News.

Gettysburg has a number of funny moments. While it is more of a family drama than a comedy, it is also a novel that defies characterization. Gettysburg raises more questions than it answers. The story unfolds over the course of a weekend, but very little is resolved. What Reynolds actually learns from his experience isn’t entirely clear, even to Reynolds. This might not be the right novel for a reader who can’t tolerate ambiguity. Readers who will appreciate a novel of ideas populated by characters who are both entertaining and thoughtful might want to put Gettysburg on their reading lists.

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