You could describe Olmstead’s story about a boy and his horse as a “coming-of-age” tale only if you are as blinkered as those poor horses clopping thru the traffic along Central Park. Instead, this is a novel about war, and the horrors that war visits on populations, military and civilian alike. Our boy doesn’t so much grow up during this novel, as grow hard.
It is 1863, and one day 14-year-old Robey Childs gets ordered by his mom, who supposedly has “the Sight,” to grab a horse, head down the Pennsylvania valley and collect his soldier father and bring him back “before July.” It is nighttime, and he sets off with neither a change of clothes nor food nor weapon nor much of a horse, as he discovers when he arrives at the nearest village next morning with he and his now lame farm horse both completely knackered. Storekeeper Morphew takes pity on the boy, gives him a corner to rest in, some food and a weapon, and the loan of a gorgeous coal black stallion he inherited from a dead man just a week earlier.
On Robey’s trip downstate, we get to appreciate Olmstead’s fine writing, virtually painting the landscape with his words while he forges a near mystical relationship between a horse too good to be true, and a boy too tough to be true. Robey keeps missing his dad’s army by mere days, in the meantime stumbling across people brutalized by poverty, war, or just plain circumstances. One man shoots Robey, steals his horse and belongings, and leaves him for dead. Another, a supposed “man of God,” rapes his own teenage charge within earshot of his blind pregnant wife while Robey looks on from his hiding place, unable to intervene.
Robey gets caught in battles where flesh and bones and blood are the trophies of war, and women and children are not spared. When Robey finally catches up with his father, it is already July and the Battle of Gettysburg is over. Indescribable are the days Robey spends on the battlefield as corpses are picked over and the mass graves are dug, and the smell of rot becomes pervasive, and yet Olmstead painstakingly paints for us a wrenching landscape few of us have seen, much less experienced.
When Robey returns home, he is not suddenly a man, but rather something more and also something less. War has taken its toll, as it had to. Whatever occasional lapses in plot and character depiction Olmstead’s story suffers, Coal Black Horse is a must-read, and should serve as a potent antidote to today’s videogame culture of mass slaughter for entertainment.