MacKinlay Kantor seems like he was a pretty great guy. While growing up in Iowa, he added an “a” to his middle name, McKinlay, because he thought it made it more Scottish; during WWII, while riding along on some bombing missions on assignment for an L.A. newspaper, he asked to be trained and allowed to use the plane’s turret machine guns (you know, just in case); and then, there’s this picture.
Levity aside, Kantor seems to have found his experiences in WWII quite formative. Present at the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp he was convinced to try and tell the story of an American “concentration camp”, Camp Sumter, a.k.a. Andersonville, bane of Union troops during the American Civil War. There are few words. Andersonville the prison was a living nightmare. Extant images of survivors defy imagination. Simply put, the design, execution, and maintenance of the camp was an atrocity visited upon mankind that has few peers. It cost one of the Confederate officers in charge, Henry Wirz, his life for war crimes.
Kantor’s writing about the subject has a simple outward structure, yet is entirely compelling. His characters live and breathe and have a piquant amount of human sensuality. He is generous to many, even Henry Wirz, giving the lie to easy answers about responsibility for the evil that was Andersonville. He is able to bring stories he heard face-to-face with Civil War veterans during his boyhood into play within the narrative, humanizing all sides of the conflict. And he knows when to provide his readers with a miracle. Contrary to my title for this post, Kantor uses many words in his story of Andersonville. Some of the details are so overwhelming and the breadth of the book so great, readers could easily begin to lose hope of ever reaching the end or having any reason to. A miracle (or two!) in the narrative leaves us with a residue of hope by the end and a reason to bother reflecting upon the history that contains such a happening.
“Craig is reading all of the Pulitzer-prize winning novels in chronological order. See the origins of this journey here.”