By Lawrence Wells
Yoknapatawpha Press/Sanctuary Editions, 2008
Reviewed by Julia Oliver
The author and his wife, Dean Faulkner Wells, operate Yoknapatawpha Press in Oxford, Mississippi. That venture and its new imprint, Sanctuary, get their names from the fictional world created by her uncle, William Faulkner. Although priced separately, these books are presented as a pair. The first listing above is a sequel to the second, which is a reissue of a 1986 novel published by Doubleday. Other previous editions of Rommel and the Rebel were published by Bantam in 1987 and Yoknapatawpha Press in 1992.
The idea to write a novel about a fabricated journey to America by the German military leader Erwin Rommel, who had distinguished himself in World War I before achieving fame as the wily World War II Field Marshall known as the Desert Fox, came from a press account of a visit to Mississippi by a group of unnamed military men from Germany in the late 1930s. Wells has drawn a convincing parallel between the military tactics of this colorful, well-developed character and those of the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Accompanied by an American translator, Max Speigner, the foreigner reviews a re-enactment of the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg and visits the historic terrain of Brice’s Cross Roads in Baldwyn, Mississippi, where (in 1864) Forrest defeated an army that outnumbered his forces two to one. At the hallowed ground of Shiloh, William Faulkner, who is also among the cast in this fascinating fantasy, remarks to Rommel, “Smell the ghosts?” And Rommel and Speigner are hospitably entertained at Rowan Oak.
This novel that received high marks when it first came out twenty-six years ago—such as “damned fine writing” from Esquire—is an example of what might be called layered historical fiction. The “present” of 1937 links to the Civil War era of the 1860s, and for some readers, especially in the latest printing, the occasional use of racial dialect may add another aspect of datedness. In the first chapter, as Rommel strolls through Harlem, he is approached by a prostitute, who asks, “Why doan you say sump’m sweet like, ’Now where kin I git me a good lookin’ ho’ on a nice night like this?” Rommel pulls out his English-to-German dictionary and looks up the word, then thinks, “A farm implement?...She does not look like an agricultural worker, though she is sturdy enough.” Later, he is approached by three black men, and one commands him to “Gimme yo’ wallet.”
The follow up, Rommel’s Peace, begins in May 1944 in occupied France. In this brisker-paced narrative, a disillusioned Field Marshall Rommel tries to broker a truce with British and American forces on the Western Front. He arranges for his former friend, the American Max Speigner, to be released from a prisoner of war camp and dispatches him to Britain “with a message for Ike.” That diplomatic effort is doomed to failure by two historical incidents: A failed German bomb plot against Hitler, and the Royal Air Force’s attack on Rommel. In a brief Epilogue, the author makes his case for depicting Rommel’s stance as he did. At 201 pages, the sequel is about half the heft of its 408-page predecessor.
Lawrence (Larry) Wells grew up in Ozark, Alabama, and studied creative writing at the University of Alabama. His other work includes the novel Let the Band Play Dixie and an Emmy-winning TV documentary, Return to the River. Dec 2008
Julia Oliver will talk about her novel Devotion, recently reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press, on December 18 at the Alabama Department of Archives and History’s noontime lecture series.