A mother — not the flame of love or the burning need for truth — instigates the quest. Find your father, she commands, and sends her young son, a boy who at twelve became “old enough to work the land” and at fourteen just “old enough to die for it”— his mother sends him into the the war of brother against brother, the war we Americans now more or less agree to call the Civil War.
The boy rides a coal black horse. You read wondering: What kind of being is this black horse, who carries a child into war? What kind of war is this American Civil War? What kind of mother would send her young son on such a quest, and what kind of boy can survive it with his spirit intact?
He was still a boy and held the boy’s fascination for how light penetrates darkness, how water freezes and ice melts, how life could be not at all and all at once. How some things last for years without ever existing. He thought if the world was truly round he always stood at the center. He thought, Spring is turning into summer and I am riding south to meet it. He thought how his father was a traveling man and ever since he was a child he too dreamt of traveling most of all and now he was and he felt a sense of the impending.
Earthy, sometimes ghastly description entwines with a sense of the mystic. In Coal Black Horse, Robert Olmstead holds up the soul of the Civil War.