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The arctic freeze continues creating havoc in our country, even into late February. Stories abound of utility outages, food shortages, and health issues, even death. Necessary errands present challenges.

In such circumstances, I reach for the slim novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich written by the Nobel Peace Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn; its protagonist is drawn from the author’s experience as a bricklayer in one of the Gulag slave labor camps in Karaganda, northern Kazakhstan.

The novel begins in 1951, five o’clock in the morning—Twenty-seven degrees below zero and another work day, outdoors, for Ivan and the five hundred prisoners in Hut 6. The ragged noise of the hammer awakening them was “… muffled by ice two fingers thick on the windows.” From then until lights out, the reader follows Ivan’s efforts to survive.

Extremes of stale black bread and gruel in the mess hall, extremes of ragged clothing triple-wrapped around emaciated bodies, extremes of frostbite and blinding snow, extremes of cutting winds with no shelter, extremes of armed guards and attack dogs, extremes of multiple roll calls—all described in terse words, with no respite for the killing chill.

Aside from its gripping story, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, its 1962 publication by the Russian literary magazine Novy Mir is significant. Until then, the atrocities of the Gulag system had been kept hidden from the world. With Stalin’s death in 1953 and with the de-Stalinization programs instituted by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, this novel revealed its egregious secret. Solzhenitsyn continued writing from his Russian heart, until his death in 2008.

“Thanks to be to Thee, O God, another day over!” Ivan says as the novel ends.

A closer look at the language, used in John McCline’s narrative, Slavery in the Clover Bottoms (Knoxville, University of Tennessee Press, 1998), warrants a deeper look than yesterday’s blog. True, his beginnings at the Clover Bottom Plantation, near Nashville, Tennessee, and his two-and-a half years with the Thirteenth Michigan Volunteers supply readers with his adventures. But what about their written expression: so crimped and cleaned up?

That slavery shrunk-wrapped the psyche of John McCline seems to be the issue. Early on, he bore significant scars: his mother’s death, his father sold to another plantation, pervasive fears of the Mistress’s cowhide whip, the overseer’s brutal beating, the killing of the shoemaker, hunger, and extremes of weather. John never let on that there was something very wrong, never questioned about unwiped tears as he lay upon his mat, though he must have felt deeply. Only his love for animals, especially mules, afforded him release from disconnectedness that scored his innards and released joy.

As new friendships evolved among his Union pals—even teaching them the game of marbles—his quick, some say photogenic mind, began loosening the shrink-wrap of his psyche. Battlefield horrors, foraging edibles from passing plantations, rigors of handling his team of six mules through dense forests and soggy creek beds—all, and so much more, he dismissed as freedom’s price, that he would readily pay with his last ounce of blood. 

His two years of schooling at the Nashville Institute, established to train black ministers and teachers after the war, found him seeking more words to describe his world of work in order to participate more fully. An avid reader of newspapers and the English novels of M. E. Braddon, his vocabulary in Slavery in the Clover Bottom is surprisingly limited—with nothing to offend anyone, in my perception.

Should you pick up this telling narrative, remove the outer lens and look more deeply at John McCline’s character. Such a treasure you’ll discover …

“Come with us, Johnny, and go with us up North, and we will set you free,” said the soldier, his blue uniform cap tilted over his right eye, his knapsack on his back, his long musket over his shoulder. The ten-year-old, astride the mule Nell, thought it wondrous that he knew his name. For almost two years he’d marveled at the troops marching along the road skirting the Clover Bottom plantation near Nashville, Tennessee, where he lived. And now they wanted him to join them. Without a thought, he slipped off Nell’s back. It was done, the year, 1862.

Such changed the direction of John McCline’s life, narrator of Slavery in the Clover Bottoms (Knoxville, University Press, 1998). The Thirteenth Michigan Volunteers became his new home for the rest of the Civil War. A quick learner, affable, willingness, friend with suffering: such childhood traits he continued developing during years of serving others in the white world until his death in 1948.

One of his employers requested him to write his story, given the keen memory of his past. McCline set to work, but for whatever reason, only took it through the war’s end; a six-page addendum touched upon his remaining years. Unfortunately, his feelings or observations of the conflicted history swirling around him are not referenced.

However, for Civil War buffs this narrative provides rich information about Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas and the conclusion of the war. From still another perspective, we evidence the life of a simple honest man, John McCline, among the lowly ones that Jesus so loved.

Available on Amazon

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