Reflections on a friendship with John Ehle and his Time of Drums
By Terry Roberts
John Ehle and I were friends for almost 40 years. We first met about 1980 when I wrote him a fan letter. I was a young high school English teacher who wanted to be a writer, and he was a well-known novelist and educator. I was drawn to John’s fiction because of the depth and power of what he had accomplished working with a landscape that I thought of as my own. In novel after novel, John had given the full measure of human dignity to people who many Americans would have dismissed as hillbillies or worse.
Remarkably, he replied to that earnest, somewhat naive letter. We met and got to know one another, and thus began one of the most important relationships of my life. Many years later, I would dedicate my second novel, That Bright Land, to John because it seemed to me to bear such a close, familial relationship to his brilliant 1970 book, Time of Drums.
Time of Drums is the third of the seven novels in John’s majestic series set in the mountains of Western North Carolina. It is set during the Civil War, and the primary conflict is between the narrator, Colonel Owen Wright of the Confederate Army, and his older brother Jesse, who is a Union sympathizer and conspirator in the underground railroad. Not only is the Wright family ripped apart by the war, literally brother against brother, they are also torn apart by love, when Owen falls in love with a local widow who is already pregnant by another Wright brother, Woofer.
The remarkable thing about Time of Drums is that the action of the novel is divided equally between scenes set at home in the Southern mountains and scenes set in the Confederate Army. The mountain scenes are focused on Harristown, the community originally founded by the brothers’ grandfather, Mooney Wright, the protagonist of Ehle’s novel, The Landbreakers. These scenes delve into the conflicts within the Wright family, which are reflected in the violent skirmishes between local Union sympathizers and the Confederate Home Guard, which in turn mirror the horrific national conflict of the war. Everywhere is war, within and without.
In addition, Ehle provides a unique portrait of the political infighting with the Confederate Army itself, as Owen Wright struggles to advance his career as an officer. And finally, the novel features long and complex battle sequences that are hauntingly realistic — both in the massive and mindless bloodletting as well as the harrowing personal price paid by the characters. Indeed, as a war novel, this little-known book belongs beside the other great narratives born out of our national horror: books such as The Red Badge of Courage and Killer Angels.
Time of Drums is also the only one of John’s mountain novels that is narrated in first person. It opens with the voice of Owen Wright:
I would like first to tell you about the place I lived when my brother arrived to join me, this being in Virginia, but I would present myself in poor light if I did not first mention to you that my life up to that point had been affected by two matters: the death of my wife, after we had been married but a short time, and my alienation from my family, particularly my father.
Owen Wright, then, is the quintessential Ehle character, alienated, adrift in the world, trying to find his way back to a home that is lost to him.
Owen Wright’s story gave me permission to construct a long and complex narrative through the perceptions and voice of a single character. When I began to contemplate my own novel about the aftermath of the Civil War, the book that became That Bright Land, I let myself inhabit the damaged body and tattered psyche of a war veteran charged with returning home. It opens:
In the summer of 1866, I went down South to find and kill a man. It’s not what I would have chosen, and when I first arrived in the territory, I didn’t want to admit that’s what I was about. Nevertheless, I was well suited to the task — by my past and the shadows it cast in my soul.
And so begins the story of Jake Ballard, who, like John’s Owen Wright, finally returns and begins the long and arduous process of healing his wounds — both physical and psychological.
John’s protagonist, Owen Wright, is promoted to general just before the third day at Gettysburg, but his elation is short lived. Despite his protests, he is ordered to lead his troops in the horribly mismanaged assault on Cemetery Ridge. His new command is ripped apart before his very eyes, and he himself is gravely wounded. It is only when he is brought back to Harrisburg, near death, that the recovery process begins. At the heart of that process is homecoming — not just to the land itself but also to the woman Wright loves.
When I asked John late in his life what was his favorite of the many lyrical passage he had written, he cited a moment in Time of Drums when Owen Wright and his lover, Sory Crawford, are walking into the high pastures on opposite sides of the valley, and they see each other at a distance.
I was walking, walking, and across the valley I saw her walk up into her pasture. I stopped when high up on my hill, and she did, too, each moving leisurely, and when I turned she came to me, and when she knelt in the grass I knelt before her and took her in my arms tenderly and kissed the loneliness from her cheeks. All from so far away. I took her in my arms across the fields; in the shadow of the mountain and the war, I held her for a little while. (152)
The lovers are joined in their imagination and by the power of the mountains. And so it is that John’s great war story is also a love story. And Owen Wright’s wounds, including those inflicted by the death of his wife and his estrangement from his father, are assuaged by love.
I realize in retrospect that much the same pattern exists in That Bright Land. Jacob Ballard suffers from PTSD, termed “the soldier’s heart” during the Civil War. He is healed in part by his return to the Southern Mountains where he grew up— the “bright land” of the title. He also “reconstructed” by his love for Sarah Freeman, a war widow who reveals to him the inner and outer landscape of his childhood. Like Time of Drums, That Bright Land is a tale of love as well as war, healing as well as killing.
John read an early but full draft of That Bright Land before it went off to the agent and publisher, just before his memory began to slip and he lost the ability to read anything so long as a novel. When I talked to him about it by phone some days later, the first thing he said was, “this one knocks the rag off the bush.” I was pleased at the tone of his voice but confused by the words. He explained that it was an old mountain saying he’d learned from his grandmother. That it had to do with a game she’d known as a child when all they had to play with was a rag to hang on a bush and a rock or a stick to knock it off with. What had come down through time — generation upon generation — was that anything truly fine “knocked the rag off the bush.”
I took that compliment to heart and cherish it to this day. For John Ehle was not only a masterful writer, he was also a dear friend. And I hear his voice even now, when I regard the mountains all around.
Terry Roberts is the author of five celebrated novels: A Short Time to Stay Here; That Bright Land; The Holy Ghost Speakeasy and Revival; My Mistress’ Eyes are Raven Black; and most recently, The Sky Club, released in July 2022. Roberts is the director of the National Paideia Center and lives in Asheville, North Carolina.