The Court-Martial of Charlie Newell
by Gerard Shirar
(iUniverse / 0-595-44491-5 / January 2008 / 326 pages / $19.95)
Reviewed by Celia Hayes for iUBR
This is a meticulous and carefully researched novel of a very specific time, place and circumstances, of belief and prejudice and conflicting obedience to conscience and the law. It follows in plain and unvarnished prose, the journey of an innocent and honest young man of strong ethical purpose, wandering Candide-like through an often violent, sometimes unjust and frequently inexplicable world. This is a world that is just now barely within living memory, the United States during the last year of World War One and the half-dozen years thereafter. We would recognize many aspects of that world; there was electricity in houses, cars in the streets, movies in the picture palace and recorded music on the record player. Women came to wear short dresses and hair in those years, and got the vote, too.
But there was one element of this world which would immediately strike most Americans under the age of about fifty or so as totally alien, and that would be the display of racial hostility, of segregation, Jim Crow laws and freelance and organized racial violence by adherents of the KKK. We know ‘of’ these matters, because we have been taught in school, and listened to our elders’ recollections… but they have not been things that we witnessed first-hand. But to the credit of author Gerard Shirar, this is not one of these angry polemics shouted from the pulpit. This is a careful and evenhanded reconstruction of a time not so long past. Characters – black and white – are finely observed by the author, and even permitted to be ambiguous. Some of them are even as principled and ethical as the times allowed, as regards racial matters generally, and specifically in the case of Charlie Newell.
The case is based on that of a real court-martial, of a Negro draftee in 1918, who was a member of a small sect who observed Saturday as their Sabbath, their holy day, on which no work was to be done. The soldier was charged with disobeying a direct order to work on that day, an order motivated at least as much by racial prejudice as it was by the demand of a military martinet that rules and orders be obeyed, no exceptions, exemptions or questions allowed. This is what befalls Charlie Newell, a young sharecropper with a wife and child, and an unshakeable devotion to the word of God. He will not work on the Sabbath, and so winds his way through the slow-working wheels of military justice and imprisonment, through the military prisons of Fort Jay, and Fort Leavenworth, through hearings that he knows nothing about and understands even less, gaining several kinds of freedom, the affection of friends – black and white alike - who come to know and value him, as well as motiveless rancor of enemies – also black and white - who see only the color of his skin. Charlie is tried severely, has doubts; he even wavers once or twice. But although the ending of the book is ambiguous, Charlie is not; he remains principled and in command of himself to the very end. This is a tightly focused and gripping read, at a time not long gone, at once quite strange and yet strangely familiar.See Also: Celia's Blogger News Network Review & Celia's B&N Review
Note: Charlie Newell is Girard Shirar's third book. His first two are Nantucket Summer and The Many Indiscretions of Arty Boyle (both released in 2006).