I’ve been fortunate so far in that Wilderness is getting reviewed and, not only that, but reviewed positively. One thing that has been mentioned in some reviews has been the character of Abel Truman; more specifically: the NAME Abel Truman. In any novel touching on the subject of the American Civil War, having a protagonist named for that Biblical brotherly conflict runs the risk of coming off not just old-hat but lazy. I think I was able to pull it off in Wilderness because, truthfully, I never gave it much thought.
For reasons beyond me—reasons maybe numinous and strange—my protagonist for Wilderness was easy to write. I was plain lucky not to have to work too hard to get Abel Truman onto the page. His actions, his speech, the way he moved and thought: it all seemed to come easy. Which is not say that everything else in the book was not a struggle to get right (or try and get right) because it was. The landscape descriptions, the scenes of the Army of Northern Virginia in its camps or on the march, the battle sequences—all those came hard, with many late nights and early mornings and hot, dead afternoons at the keyboard. But Abel Truman . . . Abel was a gift.
But naming him ‘Abel Truman?’ Not so much.
You might think his name is shorthand for the brother-against-brother motif of the American Civil War and you might think it’s a commentary on the character of his soul but, in reality, Abel Truman was named for (maybe, probably) a housecat and a president.
Back in leaner days, I used to walk to work from my house on North Puget Sound Avenue. It was six miles there and back through residential neighborhoods of split-levels and ramblers and old, smelter cottages. Without fail, along a certain stretch every morning and again every evening as I went home, I would hear a woman calling-in what I always imagined to be her cat. Calling: “Abel! Aaaabelll!” It always made me smile because, in the mornings, there was still a little while before I was at work and, in the evenings, I was done for the day and on my way home. And ‘Truman’ simply came from my admiration of David McCullough’s biography of the United States’ 33rd President.
So, sitting down to write about this old man, his soul broken by tragedy and his body shattered by war, the name ‘Abel Truman’ bubbled up as I typed and I remember thinking that it would just be a placeholder until I could come up with a proper name. But then I had a draft and then another and, before I knew, my character’s name was Abel Truman and it could be nothing else. Because he’d come to me so easily, his character had acquired for me the ring of truth. So Abel Truman-placeholder became Abel Truman-properly and there was nothing I could do about it.