The Bride of Texas

Josef Skvorecky, who has lived in Toronto since 1975, still writes in his native language about his fellow Czechs, but his books now deal with them in the New World. His latest novel concerns a Czech rifle company under General William Tecumseh Sherman’s command shortly before the end of the Civil War. Skvorecky details the company’s formation in Chicago and recounts many tales of the Czech emigre experience. He gives several characters more extensive treatment, focusing on love, both lost and won. In addition, a considerable part of the book concerns a woman writer, which allows Skvorecky to explore domestic and literary issues of the time.

For the most part, this novel is an enjoyable, entertaining read. The stories of the emigres who fled Habsburg authoritarianism for freedom in the United States are told with affection and verve. Skvorecky handles romance and comedy with equal ease. Especially amusing are the misadventures of Shake, the transplanted soldier Schweik, Czechoslovakia’s national slacker.

As with many historical novels, however, the research tends to smother the characters, who are either animated costumes or mouthpieces. This is especially unfortunate with General Sherman, whose image as monstrous first engineer of total warfare Skvorecky intends to correct. He does succeed in wiping the bloody grimace from the Union general’s face, but the bland visage he uncovers says more about Skvorecky than Sherman.

In fact, a kind of moral anachronism pervades the whole book, flattering the reader’s superiority to the ethical savages of the last century. Skvorecky examines complicated matters, such as the difficulty of waging war while maintaining Constitutional liberties, but nothing darkens his unabashed enthusiasm for the righteousness of the Northern cause.

The novel begins like an epic, with careful attention to set pieces, but as the book progresses and the characters proliferate, it becomes more and more sketchy in a rush to tie all the loose ends—all too neatly, and too often in dialogue. Though a natural story teller, Skvorecky jazzes up the book with cut-rate postmodernism. He jumps back and forth between plot lines, shuffling the narratives snippets like a deck of cards. This does generate some pleasant suspense, but by the end becomes slightly annoying, like a game of fifty-two-card pick up.