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Arts & Entertainment
10/01/00, G-06

By JOHN ROWEN, Staff Writer
Ballard's Where I'm Bound is riveting Civil War novel

Allen Ballard's "Where I'm Bound" is a vivid, fast-paced and poignant novel about battlefield and homefront life in Civil War Mississippi and Louisiana.

It is so readable that it is the literary equivalent of hitting a home run out of the ballpark on the first pitch.

Although Ballard, a history professor at the University at Albany and a Clifton Park resident, has already written two non-fiction books, this is his first novel.

The hero of the book is Joe Duckett, a slave who escapes the Kenworthy plantation. Through cleverness and bravery, Duckett rises to the rank of lieutenant in a company of the Third U.S. Colored Cavalry.

Duckett's success is clouded by the particularly evil prospect facing black Union soldiers in the western theater, as well as his separation from his family.

The Confederates were so angry at freed slaves who joined the Union army that they would execute them if they surrendered. In several battles in the book, Duckett and his men believe the Confederates will overwhelm them and inform their white officers that they will fight to the end, they will not surrender. The Confederates would also attack positions held by black soldiers with dogs used to catch slaves.

Duckett's former owner, Col. Richard Kenworthy, is a frequent opponent in battles throughout the book. The two were rivals from childhood. Kenworthy increases Duckett's torment by making Duckett's son, Luke, a personal servant and blacksmith for Kenworthy's Confederate unit.

And Duckett is constantly tormented by the memory of his family, still in slavery. The struggles of his wife, Zenobia, his sister Pauline and their children offer a sad counterpoint to the bravery of Duckett and his fellow soldiers.

Vivid descriptions

Ballard's writing is in the same league as that of Michael Shaara, author of the "The Killer Angels," the award-winning novel about Gettysburg, or Richard Ketchum, author of the history of the Saratoga campaign.

His writing simultaneously leads the reader through a battle at a pace quick enough to keep the book advancing, yet he captures all the smoke, chaos and details of weaponry and tactics.

A scene where Duckett's unit is assigned to capture a major Confederate railroad bridge is as suspenseful and exciting as "The Hunt for Red October" or "The Guns of Navarone."

Some battles in this book are small compared to, say, Shiloh or Gettysburg. Yet Ballard shows how a wrong move by the Union or Confederacy in any of these smaller battles could have altered the war's outcome. If the Union had won quicker, Gen. Ulysses Grant might have moved east sooner and ended the war earlier. Or if the Confederates held out longer, the English might have been tempted to join their side.

What is as amazing as his descriptions of the battles is Ballard's rendering of civilian life as the war draws closer to the heart of the Confederacy. He captures the waste and degradation of the institution of slavery and shows how the war devastated and diminished soldiers and civilians alike.

With the terrible things the Confederates did in this part of the war, it would have been easy to write a book with cardboard Union saints and cutout Confederate villains.

However, Ballard makes all the characters, friend and foe, real. He gives even the worst people believable, understandable elements of humanity. For example, despite their intense dislike for each other, Duckett and Kenworthy have a certain intimacy. They probably know each other better, from their long life together, than any of their fellow soldiers do. Early in the book, a Confederate soldier gets tricked by Duckett during an escape attempt. Duckett spares the man's life and the soldier repays the favor at a crucial part of the story.

Uncle Dan is an old slave who stayed behind on the Kenworthy plantation and who helps runaway slaves. But slaves who stay too long discover Uncle Dan has a dangerous secret.

One of the bravest, yet saddest parts of the book is Joe and Zenobia's devotion to each other and their unrelenting drive to reunite the family. Although she knows nothing about woodcraft, Zenobia leads her family and some friends through woods infested with snakes and crawling with soldiers and bandits. Joe and Zenobia are each battered by terrible experiences, at times they are only miles apart, yet, neither gives up on the other.

Basis in real life

Ballard based this book on real events and people. Joe Duckett and his experiences in battle and behind Confederate lines, was inspired by Alfred Wood, a real cavalry trooper. Wood's experiences so impressed his fellow troopers that he was known as "The Wizard of the Black Regiment" and the "Secret Service of the Third United States Black Cavalry."

Zenobia is a fictional character. However, her determined journey to freedom by horse and raft was inspired by a similar journey made by Woods' wife, Margaret.

"Where I'm Bound" is a remarkable, spellbinding read, for its military history and for its exploration of the human condition in wartime. The only problem for Ballard is what he will do for an encore.

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