Review: Bedlam South by Mark Grisham & David Donaldson

Bedlam South: A Novel, by Mark Grisham & David Donaldson, ISBN 9780681497566, Borders Press, © 2007, Hardcover, 308 pages, $24.95

The struggle to stay sane during the insanity of war is often a staple metaphor of the “war novel” genre. In their novel, “Bedlam South,” Mark Grisham and David Donaldson have transformed that metaphor into the reality of an insane asylum in the heart of the Confederacy.

With in the pages of their novel, Grisham and Donaldson weave the threads of several plotlines into a cohesive tapestry portrait of the disintegration of the Confederacy. Central to the story are two characters, young Dr. Joseph Bryarly, who has returned from England to oversee Wingate Asylum outside of Richmond, and the sadistic Captain Samuel Percy, who runs it. The tension between these two characters forms the warp and weave of the story.

Another thread in the novel involves seventeen year old Zeke Gibson who enlists in the Confederate army who joins his older brother, Billy, a corporal, outside Fredericksburg, Virginia. They are separated during the cataclysmic battle at Gettysburg and both fear mortal harm as come to the other.

The Dougall family became acquainted with Dr. Bryarly on their journey to America and their story forms yet another thread in the story, as does Mary Beth Greene, a mulato prostitute, and Stephen Billings, a 22 year old attorney from the North.

The authors, Mark Grisham and David Donaldson, have been friends since childhood. Mr. Grisham, the brother of legal novelist, John Grisham, has a deep interest in Civil War history and Mr. Donaldson has an interest in mental health. The novel they have written takes full use and advantage of both their interest to tell a story never before told. Mr. Grisham writing the military characters and Mr. Donaldson the characters of the asylum.

From a writing perspective “Bedlam South” gets off to a rocky start with the over use of clichés, proverbs and dialogue that boarders on the cornpone: “Don’t put the cart before the horse,” “it ain’t the size of the man in the fight,” “a one legged man in a butt kicking contest,” are just a few of the tried and true phrases that appear between the covers of this book.

At a few points the dialogue does not have the ring of truth to it: A lawyer exclaiming “Oh my heavens!” In a few instances the authors seem to hold themselves back trying not to offend the sensitivities of their readers: “son of a buck” is used a couple of times, and when Zeke’s friend Nate is killed all he can say is “lousy stinking blue bellies!” In one instance only is the word “damn” used. Their linguistic obfuscation borders on the politically correct as there are several references to slaves and blacks but not one use of the word “nigger,” an omission which is totally unrealistic considering their novel is set in the Civil War South.

That being said, about half way through the book, the novel gains its momentum that carries it through to its conclusion. As the novel progresses the characters begin to interact with each other, the separate threads are woven together to form the whole cloth. As each character gets closer in physical proximity to one another, the weaving of their storylines grows tighter. At one point near the end of the novel, I’m not ashamed to admit, I was actually moved to tears.

For their first collaborative effort Mr. Grisham and Mr. Donaldson have written a pretty damn good novel, and others are promised to follow. “Bedlam South” isn’t a work of great literature, nor I think was it meant to be. I enjoyed reading it and at the end of the day, at least as far as reading a novel is concerned, that’s all that really matters.

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