May 2006

Colleen Mondor

fiction

The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer

Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is one of the more unusual books that I have come across in a long time. On the surface it seems to be a fictionalized soldier’s memoir -- the imagined thoughts of Brevet Brigadier General Frederick W. Benteen, a very real soldier who as a captain was with General George Custer in the violent Battle of Little Bighorn. Benteen was with a portion of the Seventh Cavalry that was not slaughtered by the overwhelming Native American force under Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Because he was in a position of command but lived, Benteen remained an enigmatic figure for the rest of his life.

Falconer took what was known of Benteen’s life and death and crafted a fascinating rumination of what it means to be a soldier. Lost Thoughts is not a biography, or even a novel, it is more a consideration of one soldier’s memories of the men he fought beside and against and how those armed battles have affected every other facet of his life. Benteen is no longer fighting in Falconer’s book, he is retired and living with his beloved wife, Frabbie, in Atlanta. People still want to know what he thinks of Little Bighorn and Custer, but he has always resisted their entreaties. He decides to respond to a young man’s written questions. Benteen revisits the soldiers he has known and returns to the battle that transcended his entire career.

There are so many elegant and beautiful passages in Falconer’s work that I wondered again and again just how she could know these things; just what could have occurred in her life to give her such insight into the minds of fighting men. For example:

Why is it that men only write? [wonders Benteen] After all, if an opinion is on the menu he has never known a woman to refuse it. But there is more than argument, he thinks, in these frail pages.

The shy atheism of the male. He remembers from the army. A touching need to find their gods in one another on this earth.

When considering the men they fought against, Benteen is equally introspective, as with this thought:

Look at our photographs, he thinks, and you can see that we carried the idea of the Indians around inside us, big as another continent, just as they carried our love letters and our pocket watches, not for their meaning but for the weight of a nation that had not yet been invented.

The Indians’ thoughts lost to us already, from the time that we arrived here.

But out on the plains we were, for the time those wars lasted, linked by our grim geography of fire beds and bullets, in a terrible third nation of our own.

It is not a nation that either side fights for or against, it is a strange place that only those who are fighting can inhabit, and only by dying can truly understand. The rest are sent home confused and stunted by what they experienced and forever questioning just where they have been.

Falconer is equally adept at the thoughts of woman, a vantage point she explores through the heart of Frabbie Benteen, a woman who lost two babies while following her husband west and understands far more than her husband realizes.

This is what you did before a battle, he said to Frabbie last night; you had to fold your life like a jacket you would return to, and leave it with De Rudio and his bugle, or in among the bushes; important to move weightless and unburdened toward your horse, otherwise your life’s tender weight would trip you up.

And Frabbie asked him, Do you think this a feeling women never have?”

With slight moments like this Falconer manages to show the tenderness between husband and wife and by contrasting Benteen and Frabbie with Custer and his wife, she also examines the difference between a relationship of depth and one of awesome shallowness. Even though Frabbie was not with Benteen in battle, her close observation of her husband over the years, in person and through letters, has made her abundantly aware of the price he paid to be a warrior. In sharp contrast, Libbie Custer is a classic example of the person who thinks she knows everything while taking the time to know nothing at all. The soldiers have nothing but contempt for Libbie who clings to social status above all else, even in the frontier. Frabbie pretends to know nothing about such truths while allowing Benteen to make his way into the past at his own pace, and for his own reasons. It is because of this tender kindness that he is moved beyond all measure to love her, thinking, “Oh Frabbie, he would like to say to her, you have relieved me of my language.”

With that one phrase, Falconer captures a marriage just as earlier she has so effectively captured men at war. I was greatly impressed how easily she traveled between the two places in one man’s heart, and how effectively she illustrated one man’s desire to dwell in both those places; to be at home both in peace and war.

Ultimately though Benteen can not escape Custer, it is that battle that has transfixed the country for so long and made a hero of a man that Benteen never had an ounce of respect for. His real life opinions of Custer are well known by historians. From W.A. Graham's The Story of the Little Big Horn :

Benteen was Custer's bitter and outspoken enemy. Not even death served to change his attitude; to the day of his own passing he never abated his hatred. But his known character and the habit of his entire life refutes the imputation that at any time or in any circumstances he failed in his duty as an officer and a soldier. He fought as he had lived, fearless, uncompromising, and grimly stern. Benteen was one of the best soldiers the United States Army has ever possessed.

It must have been incredibly difficult to be a survivor of a battle that lauded the dead so highly. That heavy public opinion is certainly part of why Benteen refused to speak out about what happened at Little Bighorn and did not participate in the perpetuation of the Custer heroic myth. While not delving into tactical decisions or battlefield moments, Falconer still establishes the friendships that developed between the men in the cavalry and the significance of moments shared under the long term threat of fire. As for how Benteen felt about what happened in Montana she offers this poignant moment of self-analysis:

A terrible thing, suddenly, to haunt yourself, to pile up evidence of what you were, to explain yourself to strangers. Some strange urge, too, to cast aside the good opinions he had earned as not worth having -- he would say to Frabbie, we are not what we have done but what people think they know about us. His life now an imitation of itself -- something apart but attached, like that injured thumb. Some days he is outraged for his name -- others to sick of it he wishes he could call the surgeon to cut it off.

Delia Falconer has not written a conventional novel of historical fiction with this work, what she has crafted is far more nebulous than that. The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is a small look at the lives of largely forgotten men who met an enemy a long time ago on a battlefield that is now a monument, under leaders who now are largely myths. At its most basic level though, this book is a story of war’s intimate moments, and because of that its significance can not be overstated. There were many ways that Falconer could have written this book, many ways she could have let down Frederick Benteen and the men who rode with him. Instead, she has created the most fitting of tributes to a group of soldiers who have long been relegated to the forgotten corners of history. What a gorgeous thing she has done with her book, what a unique way to bring us back to Little Bighorn and force us, finally, to understand just who those soldiers were who rode into history.

The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer
Soft Skull Press
ISBN 1933368179
81 pages