THE YEAR OF JUBILO By Howard Bahr Henry Holt 376 pp., $25
Historical fiction has a double burden. It must be true to its time period and still hold interest for modern readers. It must ring with historical accuracy but not put people to sleep.
Author Howard Bahr has mastered that delicate balance. A writer of uncommonly beautiful phrases and compelling characters, he has twice managed to convey truths about the human condition within the confines of the American Civil War. First, in his debut novel, "The Black Flower" (1997) and now again with "The Year of Jubilo," which tells of a soldier returning home at war's end.
Bahr was born in Mississippi, lives in Tennessee, and had five ancestors who served in the Army of Northern Virginia. He has also played the part of a Civil War reenactor, so he shares, in no small measure, the national fascination with this "watershed of our history," as he calls it.
In its simplest form, "The Year of Jubilo" is about a homecoming. But Bahr adds layers of emotional and psychological complexity that lend heft and grit to his tale.
Not many of the houses in Cumberland, Miss., are worth coming home to. Most of the ex-soldiers have no idea how to fit themselves into the remnants of their old lives. Townspeople are brimming with fury at themselves, their trampled cause, and the Union occupation.
Bahr cuts back and forth among various characters, lingers over a rekindled love affair, catches the flavor of soldierly speech, and revels in the camaraderie of hapless men, but he also portrays the enormous cruelty of war.
In a recent phone interview, Bahr talked about why people in the South, particularly, feel so strongly about the Civil War, more than 100 years later.
"Southerners remember because it happened here - and we lost," he says simply. "One of the rewards of being a loser is that you get to gripe and moan. The real pain is gone. We can indulge in some romantic fantasies."
Bahr, who teaches English at a community college in Tullahoma, Tenn., says he didn't set out to write about a period in history. "The historic part is the backdrop, the landscape. I'm primarily telling a story about folks - that keeps me from being too romantic and nostalgic. I am in their present with them."
The author's 15 years as a Civil War reenactor gave him the knowledge to include small, telling details without overstating them. "I hate to do research," Bahr says, "but reenactors have rescued and revived a whole body of arcane knowledge that wasn't available 20 years ago. [Noted Civil War historian] Shelby Foote, when he was writing 'Shiloh'  didn't have the kind of information that these reenactors have uncovered. I learned about the minutiae of battle: the way it smelled and sounded, the horses and guns, the talk moving up and down the line."
While battlefield descriptions are more the province of "The Black Flower," Bahr's latest novel has its share of violent scenes, which crop up like thistles among the smoother passages. The brutality he describes - a gang rape of an Indian woman, the hunting down and killing of a slave by his master's dogs - all serve to carry Bahr's point that hatred degrades the people who indulge it.
Bahr disagrees with the assertion that he is placing a late-20th-century psychological overlay on his characters in attempting to show them as complicated, as well as cruel.
He believes that people in the 1860s had "every bit as much self-reflection and self-doubt" as their modern-day counterparts. "They had the same impulses and desires for peace, security, and love, but they were living in a period of enormous violence. Death was everywhere, all the time.
"The war generated a violent momentum that was hard to slow down," he says. "It affected people, made it difficult for them to get along."
He goes on, "One thing that is different today, we have more social and legal restraints on our behavior than they did. Folks weren't any worse then. The bad guys just had an easier time."
With two Civil War-era novels behind him, Bahr says he is done with that period in history. His next novel will be set in the 1930s and deal with working on the Illinois Central Railroad.
"The Year of Jubilo" has already found a spot on several prestigious summer-reading lists. But its impact and the flavor of its writing will stay with readers long after summer's end.
*April Austin is editor of the Homefront section.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society