["Time of Drums"] is a likable book—sober, honest, unpretentious for the most part—about a North Carolina colonel and his brigade during the Civil War, chiefly and climactically at the Battle of Gettysburg…. [It] should come as no surprise that [Mr. Ehle's] narrative has a certain sharpness and assurance about it. There's a wealth of rustic detail here, closely observed; a potentially arresting conflict between two brothers in love with the same girl; gory battle scenes; famous generals (Lee and Jackson in particular).
Ehle has Owen Wright, the colonel, tell his own story, for reasons Owen gives toward the end of the novel: "The notes about the war and my life in it I am writing for my children once they are grown should they seek an explanation for the reputation I have, for I am sometimes called a traitor and sometimes a hero by my own people." Owen's explanation of his motives, his hints at the ambiguity of his character, make him and the book sound interesting enough. Unfortunately, they promise more than is delivered.
"Time of Drums" is, in fact, a fatally flawed book. Reading it is hard going—there's no narrative thrust, no urgent, sustained rhythm—and this is largely the result, I think, of Ehle's method of getting the story told. What we are faced with is a first-person narrator who doesn't take advantage of the form—a chance to render events with vivid immediacy, say, or to develop a subtly ironic self-portrait—but doggedly insists on misusing the form; Ehle has Wright say and report all sorts of things that he just can't get away with.
The novel's solid virtues—its understatement, the characters' gritty integrity, Ehle's knowledge of place and historical event—are undermined by this failure of craft. In matters of fact, for instance, Ehle is determined that we know something of the sociology of the South, and he is forced to serve up huge gobbets of undigested knowledge in the unlikeliest ways….
Ehle has Owen, a man in the thick of battle, view the proceedings with a panoramic eye, as if he were one of those foreign journalists perched in trees. After a rather lengthy historian's report on the defeat of various brigades (all somehow witnessed by Owen) Ehle attempts to justify Owen's remarkable vision: "There was Yank cannon fire now … and I was almost compelled to go to it; one is called, one can scarcely keep himself from running toward such challenging sounds and deeds. I moved along the ridge to be closer, to see it closer, to see it all." It's a brave attempt, but it doesn't convince. We end up witnesses to a conflict between narrative limitation and authorial desire.
There are less obvious failures of language and authenticity, which grow out of this same conflict. Whose language and sentiments are these, Owen Wright's or John Ehle's? "Most of my men don't need hate in order to be committed. They don't even need a political cause in order to be committed. What they need is each other and this regiment, they need being part of it; we need each other." To my ear, that comes perilously close to up-to-the-minute, contemporary cant. If we are going to have cant, let it at least be historical.
James Boatwright, "A Carolina Colonel in the Civil War," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1970, p. 46.