Delia Falconer, The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
2006, 146 pages, hardcover, $16
twenty-three years have passed since the massacre at Little Big Horn, and the public at large does not look on Frederick Benteen, one of the few survivors, kindly. Upon receiving a letter from a young historian determined to tell the true story, Benteen embarks on a journey of memory and meditation on the disparity between history and myth-making.
Thus we are introduced to Delia Falconer’s The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers-breathtaking in every facet-as a poignant eulogy for Benteen’s fallen comrades, as a recollection of vignettes that comprise two terrible days of battle. We meet Custard, as an imperfect leader and not the legend he became; Young Tom, always in the shadows of his brother, Custard; Pritzker, the dreamer, who dreamed he carried “a sack of cats out to the desert to paint”; Handsome Jack, the unintentional philosopher, who composes a list of farts. All this Benteen remembers in his struggle to capture the essence of the war that forever changed his life, perhaps with a mind to the legacy he will leave:
He wants to write the lost thoughts of soldiers. No, not the grand story, he has never known his life that way, but the seams and spaces in between. This is history too, he thinks, the weight of gathered thoughts, the cumulus of idle moments.
In recollecting memories of his fellow soldiers, Benteen rediscovers his own story and place in history. At last, Benteen writes a letter to the young historian:
If you truly wish to understand the battle and my place in it…you must understand the dreams and jokes and stories that we bore within us. You must see how, as we shared them, they formed a kind of landscape.
One might be tempted to describe Falconer’s stunning novel as one in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But in truth, every thought, each sentence, even single words, echo the gravity of human experiences in ways most novels strive for but often fail to find. One soldier eats grass when he gets nervous. Men play games and banter to avoid the specter of death. And there is a beauty in nature that belies the atrocities of war.