Saturday, October 04, 2008

Bedlam South by Mark Grisham and David Donaldson

Bedlam South by Mark Grisham & David Donaldson
Copyright 2008 - Release date: October 7
State Street Press (Borders) - Historical Fiction
322 pages
Authors' website

I couldn't find a decent image of the Bedlam South cover, online, so I plunked my copy on top of my Poppet bag and shot a few photos. Yes, my poppets live in a lovely, embroidered bag . . . which, coincidentally, was purchased in the same town that houses Bedlam South's publisher, State Street Press in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

I've recently discovered a new obsession with all things (American) Civil War and the description of Bedlam South grabbed me right off the bat. There are several interwoven plotlines and you can read the cover blurb, here. I overcame my shy nature and boldly asked the authors if they needed anyone to review Bedlam South, after reading about it at another blog. David Donaldson kindly replied and shipped an ARC. And, oh, I'm so glad I asked!

In the story, "Bedlam South" is the nickname for Wingate Asylum, a mental institution in Richmond, Virginia where soldiers suffering from various mental afflictions are housed and -- as in the Bedlam of English fame -- many are tortured and brutally killed by a sadistic and badly deformed veteran by the name of Captain Samuel Percy and his cohorts, men who pillage and kill during their leisure time, as well as their working hours. Joseph Bryarly is called home from Bethlem Royal Hospital in England, assigned to work at Bedlam South. Upon his arrival, he immediately becomes enemies with (and subordinate to) Percy. Can he make a difference or is madness or death the only way out?

Zeke Gibson joins his brother Billy on the front lines with Company C, 13th Mississippi. Initially excited to join the Confederate effort, Zeke soon discovers the hardships of war as his company, a part of Longstreet's Division of The Army of Northern Virginia, faces long marches in inclement weather, tiny rations and shocking casualties. Separated at Gettysburg, neither brother knows if the other is alive and both must struggle through their own private battles and momentary madness. Eventually, their lives will intertwine with that of Dr. Bryarly and an Irish immigrant family.

I'm skipping the normal review format because I don't think I can really give this book its due using that format. What you really need to know is that the only reason I set this book aside for even a minute was to focus on finishing another book I'd been reading for quite a while. It was painful putting Bedlam South down for a few days; and, once I picked it back up I was simply immersed.

Ordinarily, I'm not a fan of vernacular but there are several modes of speech in this book and I thought the dialect served well to distinguish the characters. Zeke, Billy, neighbor Nate and other Mississippians speak with thick, farm-boy Mississippi accents. Joseph is originally from Alabama, but life in England has altered his mode of speech; he's proper and formal. The Irish immigrants speak as you'd expect, although there were times I thought they veered toward the trite.

What I truly loved about this book was the sense of place -- the ease with which one can empathize with the soldiers as they shiver in the cold and yearn for larger rations and shoes that aren't falling apart, the placement of the fictional characters within the framework of actual events and references to true characters of the Civil War. I've only recently become familiar with the major players in the Civil War and I admit to getting a buzz out of reading about them from the inside, so to speak. Other characters are fictional, but well-known generals appear in their proper places within a realistic timeline. When important leaders are killed or injured, the deaths and injuries are mentioned.

Not long ago, I read a Civil War novel in which the war left the characters largely untouched and I found that frustrating. Bedlam South is quite the opposite in that you get a true understanding of how loss and tragedy become a way of life during a time of war.

It was also fascinating to read about the way deserters and men suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress (which we all know about now, but which was not a recognized condition at that time) were treated, at the time -- lined up and shot or locked away, tried and hanged. I recall reading a dispatch about how deserters were to be handled in The Words of War, but reading about those men when they were described as individuals put a new perspective on the process. As the story progresses, the reader becomes aware that each of us handles challenges in different ways but it's not completely abnormal for any person to experience the odd momentary loss of sanity when surrounded by death and horror, starvation and other extremes.

There are little things I could criticize about the writing in this book; it's not perfect. I think the book was a little shy on character development, but the way the authors place their characters in the midst of hardship really jibed with the nonfiction I've recently read, so I appreciated their attention to those depths of deprivation due to war-time conditions. Otherwise . . . anyone who has studied writing will catch a few "new author" mistakes. I found the story so utterly page-turning that I chose to ignore those minor flaws. When I first picked up the book, it grabbed me immediately. I cared about Zeke and Billy, Joseph, the Dougall family and Mary Beth, a high-class hooker. I highly recommend Bedlam South, particularly to fans of historical fiction and Civil War buffs.

One thing I really appreciate about the book . . . sex is never described in graphic detail; in spite of the fact that many of the soldiers in the book turn to prostitutes (and that one key character has turned to prostitution to survive) and some of the characters fall in love, the actual couplings are bypassed. Thank you, thank you for that, Mr. Donaldson and Mr. Grisham.

A portion of the procedes from this book will benefit Impact Missions, a North Mississippi charity founded by David Donaldson. You can read about David and Impact Missions, here. Be sure to page all the way down, so you can see his cute little grandbaby and the firing cannons.

The authors have written two follow-up books and are working on a fourth book. I am bouncing on my toes. I cannot wait to read them.

Must dash to church, but I hope to get around to a belated Buy a Friend a Book giveaway post, later today or tomorrow, as well as a wrap-up of my September reads.


  1. Great review, Nancy! This does sound good. My husband has more of an interest in the Civil War period than I do, but after reading your review of this one, I may have to check it out. He can borrow it after me.

  2. Anonymous6:41 PM

    You're getting me interested in the Civil War again. The book sounds fascinating.

  3. Wendy,

    Oh, good! Let me know your thoughts if and when you get around to reading!

    I wasn't really all that interested in reading about the Civil War till recently, but now I want to read everything I can get my grubby little hands on. Who'd have thought? LOL I'm going to add a sentence to this effect -- I think the book was a little shy on character development, but the way the authors place their characters in the midst of hardship really jibed with the nonfiction I've recently read and I'm so glad I got the chance to read Bedlam South. I'm excited that they've already written two more books and are working on a fourth.


    Coolness. I keep trying to tempt you. Just yank yourself away from the kings and queens for a few days. You can always go back to your tower room when you're done. ;)

  4. Just emailed the authors and asked?? What a novel idea. Not sure if I could overcome my shy nature and boldly ask but it does sound like a really great book. Laura's been talking about this one a lot lately and is really excited that the author(s?) will be coming by our Borders in a few weeks -- Laura, if you're reading this yes I'm talking about you... -- My dad is also really interested in the Civil War so I'll have to keep my eye open for it as a possible Christmas gift.

  5. Trish,

    I know, isn't that wild? I've never done that, before, so it's almost like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Someone took over my body and asked an author . . . but, I'm really happy about that nice, bold alien because I really, really enjoyed the book.

    Laura told me she's excited. I forgot to tell her that other bit, but she reads my blog so now she knows. LOL

  6. Grisham...any relation to John?

    I love Civil War novels. Now that you're on this kick, will you be picking up Andersonville? If so, start working's a Chunkster!

  7. I went through a Civil War phase a couple of years ago and really loved all the books I read. This sounds really good too!

  8. Anonymous8:10 AM

    Awesome review! Wow...

  9. Bybee,

    Mark Grisham is John's brother, yes.

    Ack - 768 pages! I'm not so sure I'm willing to tackle that one, right away, but Andersonville does sound like a good one!


    It's a good one. I've got two more Civil War books on my shelf. And, it seems like this next year really ought to be the year I get through Gone With the Wind!

    J. Kaye,

    Thank you!

  10. Nancy, the words that caught me this time were "anyone who has studied writing will catch a few 'new author' mistakes."

    What kind of mistakes? Tell me, tell me, before November starts because I'm doing NaNoWriMo again and don't want to come across as a "new author" (even though I am one).

    Will you be NaNo-ing this year? I still have you on my list of writing buddies.

  11. For some reason, you're post put me in mind of Mr. March. Perhaps the Civil War, perhaps the prostitutes. Anyway, it's got to be WAY better than that stupid book. Which for some reason I can't fathom won the Pulitzer. I found it a personal affront to Louisa May Alcott, myself.

    As usual, I digress. This book sounds wonderful by your review, bookfool.

  12. Bonnie,

    I have to be honest with you -- you've got to write and then sit back and read, let other people critique your work and look at the big picture to really *see* those new author mistakes in your own work. I learned a lot from the two Nanos I participated in (and I did complete both, or "win", as they say). I'd have to sit back and think to remember the mistakes they made in Bedlam South. I just remember seeing them as I went -- I was actually so into the book that I wasn't willing to interrupt the flow to take notes.

    Sorry, that's not all that helpful I'm sure!

    I probably won't be able to do Nano -- just depends on whether or not I get a new passport in time, but hubby claims he's taking me on vacation. I might go ahead and join in for part of it, just to get myself back to writing fiction (which I haven't touched in a year). Nano is such fun!


    March is one of those rare books that I had on my wish list and took back off (so weird) because what I read about the way she changed Mr. March was so far removed from the man I knew and loved in Little Women that I didn't think I could stand to read March and have my view of him permanently warped. Sounds like you'd have been better off avoiding it, yes?

    I really enjoyed Bedlam South, particularly the bits in the field with the soldiers. The character development is a little weak, but I think they did a fantastic job of setting the scene and I like to feel like I've been there, so to speak, so I loved that.

  13. I love Civil War books. This one sounds great! Have you read The Killer Angels by his father Michael Shaara or Gods and Generals by Jeffery Shaara? Both excellent books. One about Gettysburg and one about the events leading up to Gettysburg.

  14. Great review, Nancy! This one is going on my list! Also nice to know that the authors have written follow-up books...I like that.

  15. Gone with the Wind is a wonderful book. I read it in middle school and always meant to re-read it again someday.

  16. Anonymous12:17 PM

    Excellent review. This one I will add to my TBR list!

  17. Joemamma,

    I haven't read anything at all by the Shaaras, although I have a friend who has gobbled up every Shaara book ever written. Till recently, I wasn't interested in them, but I think I might have a copy of Killer Angels that I got for my husband -- I'll have to look. Thanks for the reminder! I've got Jeff Shaara's first WWII book on my stacks, here.


    Thank you! The authors are on tour, at the moment, and they're looking for a publisher for the two sequels, so cross fingers they'll find one when they stop in New York. I have my fingers, toes and ankles crossed (in spirit -- kind of hard to type with crossed fingers). :)


    I feel bad about the fact that I've failed to get past page 30 of GWTW. The last two times I tried, though, I was working in a bookstore (had to keep putting it down when a customer walked in the door) and then had a little hellion running around at my feet. My life is a little more subdued, now, so maybe it'll work the next time. :)

  18. Oooh, the cover of this one is delightfully creepy, and it sounds fantabulous!

  19. Oooh, I hope you guys like it as much as I did because now I'm getting nervous. So many people adding it to the wish list on my recommendation! :)


    I do hope you enjoy the book!


    It's a creepy cover, all right.

    I had trouble putting the book down. You'll recognize those "first-time author" errors I mentioned, if you read it, but I hope you feel like I did . . . not worth stopping to worry about.

  20. Anonymous1:21 PM

    Hey Bookfool,

    I was actually googling to learn about this book and read your blog. Nice job. My name is Geoff Edwards. I am the author of Fire Bell in the Night. It is a pre Civil War story that I think you might enjoy. You can look it up anywhere if you want (Borders, Amazon, Barnes). Anyway, was wondering if you wanted a copy...Here comes full disclosure. I am not looking for anything...neither a review, or a mention. All I want is for people to read my story. If they like it, GReat. Maybe they'll tell a friend. That's it. Anyway, if you are interested, feel free to write me on my e-mail account. If you aren't interested, then thanks for your time. I appreciate it.

    All the best to a fellow booklover!


  21. I'm so glad to hear that you really enjoyed the book! I've been itching to get my hands on a copy, and now that it has been released (Oct. 7, I think?), I'm going to go tonight to purchase it! I've been trying to cut back on my book buying, but the money goes to a good cause!

    It's funny that someone else mentioned March, because I just finished it!. I have been on quite a Civil War kick lately, and I still plan to read The Known World, and Bedlam South. Do you have any good non-fiction recommendations that are a little less scary than that giant one you recently read?

  22. Geoff,

    Thank you for the compliment. :) And, oh, boy. Ask me if I can resist an offer like that. LOL


    Yep, October 7. Just call me "enabler". I know what you mean; I've been trying to cut back, also. My husband has actually started to protest. He says that by cutting back, I've removed one of the greatest joys (bookstore browsing) from my life. Wow, I'd never have expected him to say that! Anyway . . . I hope you enjoy Bedlam South. It makes me nervous when people read a book on my recommendation (The old "If you hate a book I loved, will you lose respect for me?" concern).

    I love it that you and I are both on a Civil War kick. I am so new to both fiction and nonfiction about the Civil War that I can't recommend anything, yet. Sorry. I'll let you know if I find anything wonderful, though!!

  23. Hey, shameless self-pimping here but if you like to read about the Civil War, I'll have reading challenge in 2009. Check out my blog :-) And I have a list with books, in case you need more ideas!

  24. Anonymous9:15 AM

    Ooh, this sounds like a great book, and I bet it would be popular with many patrons at my (Southern) library. I may have to add it to our collection development list!

  25. Aaacckk! You've done it again. On the TBR list it goes.

    Thanks (I think).

  26. Marny,

    Noooooo! Just kidding. I only do one challenge at a time, now, because I don't like to feel overly scheduled in my reading. But, I'll check yours out. :)


    If you're in the South, I'm sure there are plenty of people who'd love to check the book out from your library. Civil War books never seem to lose their popularity (although it sure seems like there has been an upswing in Civil War lit, lately -- maybe it's just that I'm suddenly interested). :)


    I know. Doesn't it kill ya? Your reviews always make my wish list heavier, too! :)


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