Lance Levens, Tietam Cane (Tucson, AZ: Fireshippress, 2014), 265 pages
At first, I disliked Tietam Cane. The precocious twelve year old, while obviously bright, was a racist and bigoted. He even had plans to kill the one Yankee he knew in school. And, as a reader, you had the sense that Tietam would have carried out the deed if he had the opportunity. Thankfully he didn’t. However, as I read further and learned more about his upbringing, I couldn’t help but to feel sorry for him and even began to like him. The burdens of the past laid heavily on Tietam, who nickname derived from the most vicious battle of the Civil War, Antietam. The boy grew up without parents (who had run away to New York to be “Beatniks”), raised by his grandparents. His grandfather was so into the Civil War that he still heard the voices of dying Confederate soldiers. It was a heavy burden for a man to carry through life. His father had, as a young teenager, attempted to shoot the Yankee commander of one of Sherman’s raiding parties after they had stolen the family’s food and valuable. The Yankee commander had everyone in the family brought in at gunpoint and forced them to witness the cutting off of the boys right hand so he could no longer shoot. The severed hand became a reminder of Yankee cruelty. The father passed on his hate to his son and his son was not attempting to pass it on to his grandson. Now, in 1963, Tietam is still living in the Civil War. There are surprising twists in the last chapters of the book which allows the reader to experience an epiphany as we, like Tietam, learn that things are not as they appear.
I was drawn to this book because I am a Southerner and although Tietam, the character, was six years older than me, some of what he experienced was my experiences. Thankfully there are no severed hands stashed away in family basements (as far as I know), but I had a teacher in the late 60s tell about her grandfather trying hide their valuables and food from Sherman’s soldiers and being hanged for it. His neck wasn’t broken and the as the soldiers rode away, his mother cut him down with a butcher knife and the man went through life with a terrible scar on his neck. I don’t remember if it was the same class, but there was also a picture in a North Carolina history book that showed a late 19th Century Ku Klux Klan lynching in Moore County. Having been born there, I looked at the photo with horror, wondering if I was related to any of those who had done such a despicable deed. As one German philosopher taught, “The past weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
At the end of the book, the reader realizes that Tietam is going to be okay. The weight of the past has been lifted. I enjoyed this book. It is a quick read and Levens is a gifted storyteller. I learned about this book when Levens spoke to a writer’s group in Savannah.