Roberts sets That Bright Land against the tense backdrop of the post–Civil War South.
How did you come up with the book’s premise?
Several years ago, I found the pension records for my great-great-grandfather Benjamin Franklin Freeman. When I decoded the handwriting in which the records were recorded, I discovered an amazing story. Freeman fought for both the Confederate and Union armies during the Civil War, and then came home to a complex and troubled life back in Madison County, N.C. I began to imagine what the federal pension interviewer who recorded this tall tale of adultery, venereal disease, manslaughter, and so on must have thought. From there, I began to imagine the interviewer himself. That man became Jacob Ballard, the narrator of That Bright Land.
Did your research yield any surprises?
Yes, that the Civil War itself was only one chapter in a longer story of regional violence that began before the war and lasted long after its conclusion. The war merely fanned the flames that, in many cases, already existed. It gave men and women the excuse they needed to give vent to the buried conflicts.
So the war didn’t end with Lee’s surrender?
No. The truth is that both North and South suffered horribly from the war. The years 1865 to 1870 were years of bankruptcy, divorce, and even suicide—in the North as well as the South—as these maimed and battle-weary men returned to communities already shredded by the war. Ultimately, the theme of my book is healing, but the process of healing at all levels took much, much longer than most Americans realize.
You’ve written that the death toll from the war “changed almost everything about American culture.”
The Civil War was far and away the bloodiest conflict that America has ever been involved in. Thousands, like Young Freeman in the novel, died in prison camps, and hundreds of thousands died of disease. Furthermore, the important thing to understand is that we were killing each other. We couldn’t come home, like the members of the Great Generation who fought in WWII, and pretend that it never happened or that we didn’t witness the atrocities of war. In the Civil War, the front lines and the home front were too often one and the same, and the enemy across the river was a mirror image of ourselves. Those who did come home came home both physically damaged, like Jacob Ballard, and psychologically wounded at the deepest level. This was as true in the North as it was in the South. In 1866, everyone in America was in some sense a survivor of that war. It haunted every household.