To posit the matter as a cliche: As a novelist, Jim Lehrer makes an excellent journalist. In No Certain Rest, he sets out to create a modern conflict with the 130-year-old battle of Antietam as the centerpiece. National Park Service Archeologist Don Spaniel uncovers the remains of a union soldier on private land on a hill somewhat removed from the battlefield and on private land, which explains why it’s lain so long undiscovered. The bones and certain artifacts in the grave lead him on a quest to find the identity of the body and clear up certain irregularities in the apparent manner of death. The search leads him to a small town in Connecticut where the soldier in question has been lionized ever since the war and where families of the man and his cohorts have maintained a solid prominence.
It’s a nice setup, and Lehrer does a superb job of dissecting the battle. He invents a amateur historian/military guy who walks us through the whole awful battle minute by minute. It’s a horrible story, the worst one day slaughter–some 75,000 me–in the war and in American history. It’s the story of a bumbling union general (Burnside) who sent men over a narrow bridge into fusillades from a promontory above them when they could have waded across the creek. Burnside’s was just the worst of the errors made that day that allowed Lee to escape and the war to continue for three more years. A stirring tale, but it reads like a text.
The same is true of the forensics involved in identifying the remains. We find ourselves looking over Spaniel’s shoulder as he copies or reads notes from forensic texts. Clinical, yes. Dramatic, no.
The problem throughout is that there is nothing much at stake. What if we don’t find out the body’s identity? Well, Don will be disappointed. What if we do? Well, Don will be pleased and no doubt honored. There’s a document that we peek at from time to time, an account of one of the people who was present at the death, but we don’t find out what’s at the core of that until way late to have built any emotional tension, so it really seems no more than notes about the battle as we proceed along our way to the end.
Thus, with so little that matters happening, we’re left with a nicely detailed history of Antietam and a look at what people in the soldier’s home town think. There’s a powerful, if not fully earned, ending, But it comes so suddenly and with such little preparation that it falls pretty flat and appears contrived.