Plot: Greene's story of a Michigander who enlists, after a drunken brawl, in the Northern cavalry builds toward a lesser-known engagement at the Battle of Gettysburg, a fitting climax for a novel that focuses on everyday soldiers whose drills, marches, and skirmishes keep glancing up against history. "Northern Wolf" is part historical travelogue, part spirited Bildungsroman, and part battle novel, inviting readers to immerse themselves in what life as a Civil War soldier might actually have felt like. At times, though, the narrative's focus on the journey of Johannes Wolf comes second to appearances from historic figures, whose point-of-view chapters slow an otherwise compelling story.
Prose/Style: Greene's prose is crisp, inviting, memorable, and period-appropriate. The dialogue is especially strong, with characters' idiomatic speech revealing both the drift of mind of these individuals but also of an era now otherwise lost to us. Greene excels at capturing the rough wit and camaraderie of his soldiers, as well as the poetic flourishes in the speech of a population that has the cadences of the King James bible echoing in its blood.
Originality: Stories of enlisted men seeking adventure and then finding loss and glory on the battlefield are commonplace, as are Civil War stories that march end at Gettysburg. But Greene's trek over a well-trod past is fresh and vital, fully imagined and bursting with life.
Character Development: Greene's novel adeptly captures, in its own words, the "training, marching, gambling, and drinking" of Michigan's most raggedy recruits in the late war. Then those recruits find themselves tested, in rousing, vivid scenes of battle. Greene captures the feeling of military life, of waiting and parsing rumors, of pre-fight jitters and boredom interrupted by sudden terror. The book's final third loses some of its engaging power, however, as the perspectives of officers and considerations of the strategies of battle increasingly share the spotlight with the scrappy experiences of Greene's fictional Michigan 13th Cavalry.
Date Submitted: April 02, 2020