Remember that surgery scene in DANCES WITH WOLVES? You know, the one where the blood splatters on the curtain, causing Kevin Costner to freak out and suicidally ride his horse in front of the Confederate troops? Yeah, that scene. Now, imagine a whole book of that, written by an trained surgeon. Writer, plus surgeon, plus war buff, equals gruesomely awesome book.
I’m referring to NOT ONE AMONG THEM WHOLE by Edison McDaniels. Check out my Q&A with him below for more details about him, this book, the war, and surgery. As the title implies, though not everyone was killed or wounded, no one walked away whole. This book captures the essence of war.
“In a shadowland where the only read commodity was suffering and the only true coin was death…”, so the author begins his exposure of the battlefield. The richness of his description paints an indelible scene of true-to-life horror. The disturbed surgeon, no doubt from being inundated by the hundreds of scenes of brutality, knocks out his subjects with chloroform, fillets the muscle, pushes through the bone with a dulled blade, brings to life again with fanning and liquor of ammonia, and prescribes opium and alcohol to dull the post-surgical pain.
It is not all surgery. This story is woven with other characters such as the wounded soldier, the gypsy showman/undertaker, and the former slave. McDaniels’s scenes include sensory details to bring Gettysburg to life. Such as the day they marched in the dust of a thousand men, “a hot, dry dust spewing the kind of heat that paws at a man and drains the vigor out of him.” They are there with their wool jackets, baking, stinking.
This book comes to me via the author after my review of Jeff Sharaa’s THE SMOKE AT DAWN. If you are looking for an emotional and realistic painting of history, I truly believe Sharaa is gifted as such. If you are looking for the scent and feel of war, I encourage you to read NOT ONE AMONG THEM WHOLE.
Thanks to the Dr. McDaniels for sending this to me for review.
Here is the interview between myself and Edison McDaniels:
Besides the vast number of casualties of Gettysburg are there other reasons you’ve selected it as the setting for your book?
Gettysburg is, in many ways, the iconic Civil War battle. It’s known by more people than any other. Even those folks who don’t know much about the Civil War have heard of Gettysburg. That said, I will point out the events of Not One Among Them Whole are generic in that this isn’t a description of the battle itself (though there are scenes of battle), and it’s not an historical narrative. I’ve read a great deal of history, military history especially, but I am not an historian and have no desire to write a history book.
What I do like to write is this: ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. That’s what this book is, at least until you consider how extraordinary every individual in such a place must be—perhaps the circumstances make the man in such cases. This is really about the events surrounding the battle, the small things we all take for granted. As it progresses, it becomes about life and death and the incredible insanity of the borderland between. The title of the novel, Not One Among Them Whole, is very much in play here. Nobody gets out unscathed.
What other books have influenced your writing, both in style and inspiration?
The biggest influences have been Cormac McCarthy (Blood Meridian is a truly great novel) and Stephen King. I am awed by McCarthy’s use of language and King’s pure story telling ability. Other influences include Nevil Shute (an expert at turning mundane stories into compelling reads, I especially like A Town Like Alice) and Shelby Foote (again, his use of language is simply beautiful). I was very impressed with Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and wondered if I could do as well (I haven’t, not yet). Novels such as Frankenstein and Moby Dick also affected me. In the former, because it’s such a wonderful story. In the latter, because it’s a great story with many flaws (an entire chapter devoted to the cetology of whales? You’d never get away with that today). I used elements of all of these in Not One Among Them Whole.
What method of research have you done with NOT ONE AMONG THEM WHOLE? Are the fictional characters based upon anyone in particular?
The fictional characters are not based on any particular individuals. I just wanted to tell a story and that’s what came out. As far as research, it was sort of a write what you know thing. I am a surgeon myself, a neurosurgeon actually, and during my training (and since) I spent many nights with trauma victims. My father was a veteran of WWII (he was at D-Day, Omaha Beach) and an amateur war historian. My earliest memories of our house are those of his library and his many war books. They were everywhere. He used to regale us with stories about war and military history. In a way, I’ve been researching a novel like this all my life.
As a neurosurgeon yourself, what resonates with you most about Civil War battlefield surgery?
The overwhelming and continuing nature of it. Modern day trauma centers can easily get overwhelmed with just five or ten or twenty casualties. These folks had hundreds, sometimes for days on end. I’ve described Not One Among Them Whole as a steep descent into insanity. I can’t imagine battlefield surgery during the Civil War was anything less than that.
Is there a sequel in the works?
I get asked that question a lot. The short answer is yes, but not exactly a sequel. Once I’ve explored a group of characters, I find I am not that interested in returning to them. That said, I have recently completed a novel set in the same period, at Gettysburg. It tells the story of a woman struggling to keep her family together amid the chaos of war after the rebels confiscate her farm as a hospital. It’s just as intense as Not One Among Them Whole, and there are several characters common between the two. It’s not really a sequel though, since the action happens concurrently in the two novels.
Are you working on anything else?
Oh yes. My other great love in fiction is the ghost story. I have an incredible novel about a haunted hospital that I am about to start sending around to agents. I have another ghost story, novel, about half done. Great fun.
As a neurosurgeon, where do you find the time to write?
It’s a time management thing. We are empty nesters now. Except for the news, and every Minnesota Twins baseball game (MLBTV is the greatest), I rarely watch TV. I prefer to read and write. Reading is fundamental to writing and I try to read as much as I can of other people’s work.
You can see more about this book and Dr. McDaniels at his site Neurosurgery 101: http://surgeonwriter.com/