Monday, May 4, 2015

The Copperhead

The Copperhead
© 1893 Harold Frederic
108 pages

War can destroy a city without the first shell falling on it. Such was nearly the fate of Four Corners, New York, a small farming community in its upper reaches. Far removed from the battlefields of the Civil War, the village nonetheless suffered its injuries.  So far as Abner Beech was concerned, the world consisted of the Four Corners; the South was a distant land, its problems those of its own people. Before the crisis erupted, he was not alone in his sentiment:  most of his neighbors were kindred spirits, one Methodist lunatic excepting. That was Jee Hagadorn, from a long and illustrious line of puritanical scolds. He is, among other things, an Abolitionist, and once the war begins he ascends from the fellow everyone avoids to spearheading the town's support of the war effort. Abner Beech is astonished at how quickly his neighbors become enthusiastic about the prospect of great hordes of young men lining up to kill one another, and scandalized by the impending doom that lays in store for the Constitution in the wake of Abe Lincoln's assumption of war powers, and widespread support of it.   Beginning the book as a pillar of the community, Abner quickly falls from grace to become a pariah, spurned at church and forced by his own contrariness to keep to himself on his own farm.  Matters worsen as his own child marches off to war, wooed by the lunatic warmonger's daughter, and eventually he is subjected to  a torchbearing mob outside his home.  Although the original novel's Beech is not nearly as sympathetic as his dramatized counterpart  in Copperhead (the viewing of which prompted me to read this),  he is nonetheless heroic in both holding on to his principles, and his in being easy to forgive. The story ends on a happy note, indeed far happier than the movie's.  Modern readers will find Beech prickly, but the enduring lesson has not changed regardless. War is a sinister thing, able to turn friends into bitter enemies simply for holding the wrong opinion.

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