Martin Litvin. Bread and Salt. A Novel of the Civil War. Woodston, Kansas: Western Books, 1996. Introduction by Bill Knight. Paper. 256 pp. $10.00 + $3.00 postage and handling.
Readers are warned in advance: A NOVEL. Unlike many of Martin Litvin's recent local color histories of Galesburg, this book sails through the straits and narrows of history onto the broader seas of imagination without significantly deviating from his familiar story-telling technique of intermixing plausible dialogue with personalities and descriptions drawn from real life. Since Litvin has a deserved reputation of following the newspapers and the diaries of his characters carefully, it would be easy for readers seeing the list of sources consulted to think that the protagonist of this novel actually did the remarkable feats attributed to her; this would not be correct.
Readers should perhaps be warned, too, that the historical imagination leads onto some muddier ground than that provided by the polluted Cedar Creek to the yard of the Jewish heroine of the novel, Clara Jacobi. Anti-Semitism, for example. Anyone who denied its existence should properly be considered a fool. On the other hand, to see it everywhere is probably a mistake. Judah Benjamin was indeed in Jefferson Davis' cabinet, but it is unlikely that his presence provoked serious anti-Semitism in the North. Certainly, Benjamin was not responsible for planning the early Southern victories. Neither Confederate military successes in the East or defeats in the West had much to do with anything that was done in Montgomery or Richmond. Much more plausible is Litvin's downplayed suggestion that the war caused prices to rise even faster than wages, and Jewish merchants were caught between complaints by customers that prices were too high and the anger of competitors that Jews were undercutting what they themselves wanted to charge.
Multi-cultural America is much in evidence: the Germanness of the Jacobi family, the Blacks seeking any work that will keep their families together, the mutual suspicion of Catholics and Protestants, and the hatred between North and South. Modernism slip in: Clara, somewhat like Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, somehow intuits the existence of germs on unwashed hands, manages to break the stereotyped role of women (even temporarily abandoning husband and children), and overcomes every obstacle within a paragraph or two. Moreover, she has the energy, physical strength, and endurance of, of... could I be looking for a Barbara Streisand character? Ethnic, proud, determined, yet somehow vulnerable, loving, and moral.
The narrative technique reflects the fact that Litvin is a marvelous raconteur, a gifted storyteller. Consequently, the text reads like an oral presentation, as though a story were being remembered, with occasional comments upon later years and about the present. Wry comments about the absurdness of those times and our own abound. Readers accustomed to the smoother style of the grocery-store best-sellers may need to make some mental adjustments.
From time to time the Civil War era is lost altogether. The suggestion that homosexual marriages were discussed in 1865 is not persuasive. Although any era which can have sexually-experimental communities like Oneida (NY), Nauvoo and Bishop Hill might indeed have brought this idea up, too, one has to wonder whether this subject would have come up in middle-class Jewish or Christian households.
Still, the novel has some fine moments. The title Bread and Salt refers to the Jewish custom of starting a marriage with such a traditional meal: the bread to remind participants of Life, the salt to remind them that life was not always sweet. This refers, one imagines, not just to Clara's marriage Abe Jacobi, but also to the Confederate prisoners at Rock Island. The terrible conditions of that prison bring the novel out of the commonplaces of life in early Knoxville and Galesburg into a more universal theme: the inhumanity of man to man, and the humane efforts of women to moderate the cruel sufferings of those who are caught up in events beyond their control. Clara's dialogue with an uncaring guard about the Americanness of the Rebel prisoners sums the situation up well.
One could only wish that a Clara Jacobi had indeed existed in Rock Island, rather than the women who tried to help care for the captives but gave up in frustration. In reality, the only sizeable escape was made by those who chose to become Galvanized Yankees. After the New Ulm massacre, Lincoln had to send troops against the Sioux in Minnesota, but he could not spare federal troops to the Great Plains; Confederate prisoners were willing to do anything except serve against their Southern comrades; as a result, many ended up as bit players in Dances With Wolves.
It is fortunate that Litvin lives on the opposite side of Galesburg from Berwick, lest a group of Copperhead descendants descend upon him as did their forebearers on abolitionists during the War of the Rebellion. In truth, there were many Southern sympathizers in the region, fewer perhaps in Galesburg than in Monmouth and Oquawka, but still a significant number--in some places a dominant faction as soon as the Union men had marched off to war. Of course, most of them were too busy profiting from the higher wages to do more than talk; and since they could afford real whiskey, they talked even louder. That the Unionists saw treason everywhere is understandable; it is that reality which carries Litvin's theme of the presence of irrational hatred from Europe to Galesburg to Rock Island.
Superior to this hatred is the self-sacrifice that the Southern mother commented upon at the novel's very conclusion: "That was a truly Christian act, even if you are Jewish. We need more people like you." Nobody could disagree.
Distributed by the Zephyr Publishing Company. P.O. Box One, Galesburg IL 61402-0001.