ATiM is a bit like America itself – a place where a bunch of refugees have come together in the hope of creating something better than what they left.  In our case, we are refugees from other political blogs where the conversation is too unedifying, too insulting, too polarizing.  So we created ATiM as a place where political discussion and debate can take place in the absence of the kind of unproductive vitriol that has come to characterize much of blog commentary these days.

The author list is representative of all ideologies and philosophies across the American political spectrum.  We have traditional conservatives, libertarians, moderates who lean right, moderates who lean left, and steadfast progressives.  If you have stumbled upon us, you will almost certainly find a political soul mate somewhere among us, as well as finding an arch political foe.  That’s what makes it fun. 

We are, of course, primarily a political blog, but all discussions are welcome.  We have had recipe threads, movie threads, holiday threads…nothing is out of bounds. The discussion of Suite Harmonic is our first book review.



From markinaustin: For those of us who love Civil War stories, as I do, Suite Harmnic is satisfying.  The main characters, John and Kate, become known to us as they become assimilated, as their Irish Catholicism fades, as they mature, and as they internalize the issues of their time.That John survives Shiloh is amazing, that he learns that he will keep his head in combat is what gives him resiliency throughout the War.  Kate, back home in Indiana, is an interesting study in both duty and stepping out of her “place” as an Irish maid to wealthy Protestants. They are both so likable and admirable, and the incidents themselves so fascinating in detail and social (or combat) observation, as to allow Suite Harmonic to stand without a [conventional] plot.  I think it does actually present a harmonic suite of the interplay of lives shaped by the Civil War, and by the integration of immigrants into society, and by the daily struggles of people we can still recognize, although their hardships were of a different time.

From Emily: While we could discuss the nature and variety of plot, I’ll just say that my work is always more character and place than plot-driven. I like to point to the difference between García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude. The first has a classic Cinderella sort of plot line; the second is more about the unfolding of events over time. Both are spectacular novels.

From Mark:
Once I realized there would be no conventional plot I stopped looking for it. Then it became more like a biographical history for me, slightly but invisibly embroidered.

From lmsinca: I was so captivated by the story and Given’s accounts of not only the war but his uncertainty that I didn’t even notice the lack of a plot. It read much more like a biography, precisely because of the letters.

From ashot: One thing that these comments capture, and which I think may fuel Mark’s point about the absence of a plot, is the remarkable depth of the characters and their varying priorities, concerns and paths as they go through the book. As is noted above, the soldiers struggle with fighting for a country where they are largely seen as second class citizens but ultimately take great pride in fighting for the north. Yet even then there is also pride that as good soldiers they are representing the Irish. This is just one example of the complexity of the characters. I can see how staying loyal to the letters could lead a reader to not seeing a plot but life often isn’t that convenient. Whatever was lost in plot was made up for by staying loyal to interesting characters with diverse and often conflicting thoughts, priorities, hopes and dreams.

From okiegirl: I found this book to be surpassingly well written, so much so that it did not even occur to me that there was not a plot in the conventional sense until I was well into it. But a huge piece of its value for me was the incentive to do some research on the Civil War and New Harmony and learn a few new things.

From Emily: This is a little inside baseball, but the first part of my answer to the Kathleen Jesme question in the Interview section of the site (it’s in On The Second Magician’s Tale) quotes many different writers and their varying ideas about plot. For me as a writer, plot becomes something that’s more organic than contrived. Story can exist without the Aristotelian structure and very often does. But different readers have different preferences and reading is a lot about reading what we prefer. That’s the beauty of it.

From markinaustin: I really liked John. Wished he had got over his infatuation with Ann, early. I was yelling at him, in my head.

From lmsinca: I loved John. I loved his honesty and found it completely believable.  I thought it was also interesting how the Irish immigrants were sort of thrown into this war with not much of a stake in it, other than proving their loyalty to their new home. I kept wondering if they had settled in GA, would they would have fought for the South. I really loved Kate and her flirtation with independence. When she asked John to vote for Lincoln for her because she couldn’t, and described how important it was to her, for some reason I felt like crying.

From okiegirl: It was a master tie-in to the vote for women. I’m not so sure I view Kate’s portrayal as a “flirtation with independence .” Was it not much more than a flirtation, given the times?

From Michigoose: I have to tell you this—“It was very easy to get tired of looking at nothing except a soldier’s face and, without women, there was a singular lack of beauty” —is spot on from my experience with soldiers. Is it from one of John’s letters? The first time I encountered it was when I was in Airborne School at Ft Benning, GA. I was an ROTC cadet and I was asked by an enlisted man, who had just completed eight weeks of (all male) Basic Training and then twelve weeks or so of (all male) Advanced Individual Training if I would eat dinner with him in the mess hall. I said sure, and asked him why he’d asked. . . his answer was “I just want to have dinner with somebody who doesn’t have to shave for a change.”

I noticed over and over while I was reading that you have the actual life of actual soldiers down pat–thank you so much for that!

From Emily: That quote wasn’t in the letters. I knew from talking to people in Decatur, Alabama and from the orders that were issued to the occupying troops, and the fact the residents had been evacuated just what a wasteland the place had to be. And then I started imagining what that would be like.

From Michigoose: On an off topic but related note, since I’ve been reflecting a lot the last couple of weeks on the impact that one person can have on a large organization: did you guys know that the modern VA medical system traces its roots back to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War? Six weeks before he was assassinated, on March 3, 1865, he signed a bill establishing The National Asylum for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. And the VA as a whole uses as its motto a phrase from the last sentence in his second inaugural address, “To care for him who should have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan.” Reading Suite Harmonic has influenced me to go back and read some of Lincoln’s speeches–I would love to see him and Obama in a “speech-off”!

From ashot: Being only 32 I know little of the devastation of war and can’t fathom how devastating the Civil War must have been to towns like New Harmony both in loss of life and impact on those who survived. It was interesting to read about the difficulty John had in reacclimating to civilian life in light of the difficulties encountered by modern soldiers in doing the same. I suppose some things never change.

From lmsinca: It does seem there are some universal themes of war and soldiering doesn’t it? I think the readjustment period is one such theme.

From Emily: It’s really true that the challenge of readjusting to civilian life is an issue after every war. It becomes even more complex when there are lasting physical injuries. Reading pension files was often an emotional experience for me. Michael McShane’s was particularly hard since he’d been in Andersonville and was just a wreck. Of course a lot of the pension files consist of men trying to make the case for an extra dollar a month to compensate for work they couldn’t do and then getting turned down. That seems to be a tradition as well–sending people to war and then looking the other way when they come home.

From lmsinca: I’m really enjoying reading about all the background and research for the book. It’s really fascinating how much work goes into it. A gentleman from San Antonio contacted me last year asking about my father because he found a letter from him to his uncle who died in WWII and he was writing a book. We were part of his research. And then I was able to put him in touch with the widow of the radio man on the Enola Gay, after getting her permission first of course, and all of a sudden he had a new wealth of information. It’s a little like solving a mystery.

From Emily: Research, when it isn’t just a slog, which it is 99% of the time, can feel like detective work. That’s fun, particularly when there are real breakthroughs. I also find it interesting to think about “crowd-sourced” history, and how much can be learned by putting stories together. I had an email from a retired military chaplain who was planning to write a novel about interlocking veterans’ stories. He told me his father’s WWI service consisted of burying soldiers in St. Louis who’d died in the flu pandemic. That linked for me to the story of my Dad’s oldest brother who died of the flu at 18 in a naval barracks in South Carolina, an event that had long reverberations in the family. In doing his research, this chaplain learned that over 50,000 American military men died of that flu, far more than died in WWI combat and numbers that rival fatalities in other wars.

From okiegirl: You are so right about detective work being fun in this context. O/T, but my niece and I are having a great time right now trying to authenticate a clarinet supposedly given to my mother by one of the members of Bob Wills’s Texas Playboys band. If we can authenticate its origin, we plan to loan it to a Bob Wills museum set to open in Tulsa. It turns out my ultra religious mother dated one of the band members before she met my father. Who knew my fanatically religious mother was a band groupie in her youth!!! It’s been a real eye opener for us. Right now we are working on getting access to a diary supposedly kept by another apparent band groupie which details every single band appearance in late 30s/early 40s. If the stories are true, my mother is bound to be mentioned in the diary. 


From lmsinca: There’s something about the words below that resonates with me and reminds me, again, how truly awful war is. 

“……it struck him even more how blasted Decatur was.  It was very easy to get tired of looking at nothing except a soldier’s face and, without women, there was a singular lack of beauty.  And color was missing.  Clothes were the sea of uniforms, faded to a vague blue, which the men, in the heat, shed as often as they could.  In a place where a normal year would have meant a host of summer flowers everywhere, the ground was unplanted-chewed up and battered by the boots of so many men.  There were no blossoms of any color.  There was no foliage.  There was only the wasted, treeless town and the mud and wood of the fort.”

From Michigoose: Emily, I love the way you use the English language and your turns of phrase. Your allusion to the “Dunsinane woods” that John and his company walk in to during the battle of Shiloh, and the absolutely elegant “[John had] thought he’d be at least as deaf as Captain Saltzman was from working in his blacksmith shop, except that Captain Saltzman wasn’t deaf now but dead. There’d been that final change of consonant.” Damn, you’re good!

Click here for the Q&A on Suite Harmonic.


Permanent link to this article: