Atlanta author Charles McNair has just released his new Civil War novel, Pickett’s Charge.
Most of the novel takes place in McNair’s home state of Alabama. It’s 1964 and 114-year-old Threadgill Pickett believes he is the only living Civil War veteran- until he learns there is one Union solider still alive. Seeking vengeance, Pickett decides to hunt down the soldier and kill him. As Pickett sets off on his mission, he encounters the turbulence of the civil rights movement in Alabama.
McNair says Pickett is a rascal who represents the South: injured, disfigured, and embittered after the war. Like a lot of the southern Confederate states, Pickett goes through a long period of isolation and confusion after the Civil War and finally starts reintegrating back into the world in the 1960s. McNair believes the South went through its true period of change during the sixties, long after the Reconstruction.
“In my opinion [that] was really the time when the South bestirred itself after a Reconstruction that really did not end in the 1880s, although that’s what the history book says.”
McNair says the Civil War wasn’t that long ago, pointing out that his father once talked to a Confederate veteran in Alabama.
“It was just two lifetimes ago. If you laid two 75- year-olds end to end, you’d be back in the Civil War.”
The South’s long, tumultuous history was the reason McNair set the novel in 1964 during the civil rights movement.
“You can’t write about the South without writing about race,” says McNair.
The central problem of the book is how to confront an old, angry Confederate and give him the chance for redemption by challenging his beliefs.
So, why the title Pickett’s Charge?
During the Battle of Gettysburg, Pickett’s Charge was the climactic event of the American Civil War when Robert E. Lee risked breaking the Union line. McNair says that event parallels Threadgill Pickett’s effort to finally win the war and get revenge on the Yankees.
Some of the themes in the novel are based on McNair’s own experiences. McNair says his father held many of the racial prejudices of the South and raised him to have the same views. But McNair started changing his beliefs when four young African-American girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
One of the victims was named Denise McNair. The author, who was 9 years old at the time, was struck by the fact that he and the young girl had the same last name.
“Even though I was 9, something began to stir in my consciousness then about what had happened that day. And I would like to think that what Threadgill goes through mirrors my own journey.”
McNair says a lot of people have never had a life experience that made them question their personal beliefs. He wanted Threadgill Pickett’s character to follow that same journey and have the opportunity for redemption.
While Pickett’s Charge takes on serious issues about race and prejudice, it’s not completely devoid of humor. McNair describes the novel as more of a yarn or a tall tale. He says much of the book is for fun and illustrative purposes instead of heavy social commentary.
McNair says he drew inspiration from his favorite writer Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He says like Kesey, he wants to surprise and awaken his audience.
Pickett’s Charge is Charles McNair’s second novel. His first novel, Land O’Goshen was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994.
Contributors: Shauna Stuart