Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 299
Through fiction, author MacKinlay Kantor helps the reader to understand important truths about human behavior in life’s most challenging situations and to expand their knowledge of what is often considered the worst period in US history: the Civil War. By using fiction, Kantor can delve into the hearts and minds of individuals whose factual traces are often slim and interpret cold, hard documents that only tell the outlines of a grim story.
In 1956, Kantor was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for this novel. The Pulitzer board’s decision stated that the book
recaptures the tragedy and drama not only of the prison stockade from which it takes its name, but of the Civil War itself.
Kantor presents the prison as a microcosm of the worst aspects of the war, but he includes rays of hope about human relations. The author himself compared his ambition for this project, both in theme and scope, to what Leo Tolstoy achieved in War and Peace. One of the novel’s strengths is its intertwining stories of dozens of individual prisoners, many of whom perish, as each epitomizes survival of the camp’s privation. Nevertheless, that breadth of coverage often comes at the expense of distinctiveness, with many of them flat characters who seem designed to represent a particular circumstance.
Viewed more than sixty years later, the historical framework of the book’s production is apparent. MacKantor had been a journalist whose World War II assignments included covering the liberation of German concentration camps. The parallels between the Civil War and the Great War are notable throughout. The author’s efforts to humanize the Southern characters, clearly distinguishing them so they could not be mistaken for Nazis, sometimes seem ahistorical in their imagined motivations and reflect mid-twentieth-century paternalist attitudes toward race relations.
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