Robert Olmstead's 'Coal Black Horse'

A boy becomes a man by heading out into the middle of a war in search of his lost father. Sound familiar? There's a new version of the tale: Coal Black Horse, by Robert Olmstead. It is a sparely written quest story that can provide hours of rewarding reading.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

A boy becomes a man by striking out into the middle of a war searching for his lost father. Sound familiar? Well, there's a new version of the tale: "Coal Black Horse," by Robert Olmstead, and Alan Cheuse has a review.

ALAN CHEUSE: Robert Olmstead's version of this fable-like story takes place during the Civil War and adds the striking black horse of the title to carry the boy on a journey to find his soldier pa, lost and mangled on some bloody field of battle.

He'd not known such a horse as this had ever been made, the boy - his name is Robey Childs - considers in amazement. He was a young stallion, and through his body, he was deep and big-set. His head was light in build, and his eyes were large. His neck was long and fine. And his tail set high, but his shoulders were built massive. His muscles were dense and ran strong and wide in the loin.

With a horse like this, you just want to ride. And with the descriptive power such as he displays here, Olmstead makes the ride an exciting one - in lean prose, reminiscent of Crane's "Red Badge of Courage," with just the proper amount of sharp description. The special flavor Olmstead lends to the tale seems to come from a mix of ancient myth and our bloody history, and a kind of pastoral vision, as in this description of Robey Childs' native landscape: the high meadow; the old fields; the mountain switch backs into the cold, damp hollows; the river mists of the big bottom; the trees and ledges; the mountain night.

The characters seem to spring up out of these surroundings, universal and yet specifically lifelike, adding to a story that lingers in the mind like a faded song about a boy in his horse from Childs' mountain home.

SIEGEL: The book is "Coal Black Horse," by Robert Olmstead. Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. And he is co-editor of "Writer's Workshop in a Book," which is being published this month.

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