‘Rufus’ a book any Civil War buff would enjoy

For the Recorder
Wednesday, May 02, 2018


By Phoebe Sheldon

Book Hollow Press


In the introduction to her historical novel “Rufus,” Phoebe Sheldon writes that she first learned of a distant ancestor, Rufus Sayre Harnden, from her late father, Stanley Sheldon, a former history teacher who had a particular interest in the Civil War.

After her father died, Sheldon inherited a huge cache of letters that Rufus Harden, her great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side, had written home to his parents during the Civil War, in which he fought with the Union Army after enlisting in New York state in 1862, when he was just 17. He came from a family of committed abolitionists.

Sheldon, a Hatfield artist, found the letters — “yellowed papers … covered in beautiful cursive … many as delicate as dried flowers” — so compelling she decided to use them as the foundation for a novel, filling in the gaps between the letters with her prose to tell the story of a young soldier who was wounded at some of the war’s biggest battles but lived to tell the tale.

It’s all told in the first person, which makes the descriptions of the Battle of Antietam in September 1862 — the deadliest single day of the war — all the more harrowing. Rufus is struck in his cheek by a shell fragment, which makes for a bloody wound but one less serious than the ones he sees all around him, especially inside and on the grounds of a farmhouse serving as a makeshift field hospital.

“The gore was unimaginable. In places the dirt was turned to mud from the blood … It truly was hell on earth. How is it I wondered, that men could inflict this ghastly damage on each another, how had it come to this? So contrary to the teachings of our Lord.”

Rufus later fights at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, where the Union Army is routed; he watches a line of troops to one side running in terror from a Confederate charge.

“I seen right on these poor boys’ heels were hordes of whooping Rebs tearing along with some of their clothes hanging off them in rags and tatters, looking and sounding like demons from the very depths of hell.”

He’s shot in the hand but rebuffs the doctors who want to amputate it; he had had some medical training (and after the war would become a doctor) and tells “those sawbones” he’ll take care of his hand himself.

At Harper’s Ferry, Rufus also catches a glimpse of President Lincoln (“Old Abe”) when Lincoln meets with George McClellan, the recalcitrant Union Army commander. He says the president’s staff seem like “fine looking fellows but I would like to SEE THEM DO THE FIGHTING!”

The story also includes an account that sheds some new light on the famous death of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, accidentally shot by his own troops at Chancellorsville.

Sheldon offers some additional context to the story through explanatory notes after each chapter, including the startling note that nearly a third of Civil War soldiers were under 18. “Rufus” also includes many Civil War photographs and maps, some portraits of Rufus as an older man, and copies of some of his original letters. This is a book any Civil War buff should enjoy.


By Gary Metras

Presa Press


Fresh off his appointment two weeks ago as Easthampton’s first poet laureate, Gary Metras has a new collection out that, like much of the past work he has published in numerous journals and magazines, finds meaning in the natural world and offers a thoughtful meditation on life’s mysteries.

The 48 poems in “White Storm” are written in an accessible, descriptive style; sometimes foreboding, sometimes a bit rueful, as though the narrator is chuckling to himself, as in “Calling in the Snow,” an ode to New England’s fickle late-winter weather.

“It doesn’t take long / in the season’s last heavy snow, / for March to turn from a brown world / to a white world — the meadow white, / the rooftops white, the sky white, / even the black mountain vanishes behind white ...”

More ominous is “The World in Reflection,” in which the same sky symbolizes a threat: “The dirty clouds flare yellow and orange / with city lights bouncing over the black / mountain into our quiet valley. / If this was somewhere else in the world, / think fire and murder ruling over there, / that, amid such destruction and death, / no one making love, no one snoring in sleep’s sweet oblivion ...”

But Metras also finds hope in life’s rhythms, the way history is recalled by people like a poet reading in a reclaimed Brattleboro factory: “Life is like that — you die, / someone remembers you lived / and brings you back, / even if only for a moment some moonless Saturday / evening in Vermont ...”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.