Tuesday evening, April 3, Professor of English and Director of OWU’s Creative Writing Program Robert Olmstead unveiled his latest book, The Coldest Night, which was released that day by Algonquin Books and already is garnering critical acclaim. A packed, friendly house at Beehive Books in downtown Delaware listened as Olmstead read a few opening pages and then took questions.
The Coldest Night is the third book of Olmstead’s trilogy—which also includes Coal Black Horse and Far Bright Star—about the Childs family’s service in the American military. “Korea,” he says, “is America’s forgotten war, and it’s the one place I’ve written about that I haven’t stood.” He researched extensively, however, and spoke to veterans of the battle at the Chosin Reservoir, where much of the action of the book occurs.
“Growing up in New England, my war was the American Revolution, but back in the ’90s, when I was living north of Gettysburg, I got interested in the Civil War and how the pursuit of war is passed down through families,” Olmstead said in answer to a question. “In the early wars, soldiers were paid in land grants, so our very sense of the ownership of land is caught up in war.”
The main characters in The Coldest Night are Henry Childs and Mercy, the love of his young life, who are heartlessly separated by her father. Childs responds by leaving town and eventually finds himself in Korea, a 17-year-old Marine about to enter one of the most horrifying battles of the war. The book also deals with Henry’s return from the war to a country that has no concept of what he has endured.
Olmstead refers to himself as an “undisciplined” writer in that “I don’t sit down with a cup of tea at 6 a.m., write for four hours, and then go play golf with John Updike or something,” he says with a smile. “But I’m a 24/7 writer. I might be talking, but I’m also thinking ‘comma, closed quote.’”
He also doesn’t concern himself much with issues such as theme or allegory or other literary conventions and devices. “My work has more to do with the atomic connection between sentences,” he says. “I have to get a paragraph right before I can go on—and all that [other] stuff gets in there eventually.”
Olmstead laughs that “my characters are probably my longest sustained relationships. That’s kind of pathetic.” But like most novelists, he finds that the characters often act in ways he perhaps didn’t anticipate. “While I was writing Coal Black Horse about Robey Childs, I was responding to the battle as a mature man, while he was responding as an apprentice in what was going to be his life’s work,” he says. “I wanted him to respond with horror, but he reacted in a much more practical way. That’s where we diverged and when he became real.”
The Coldest Night was chosen as one of Amazon.com’s Top Ten Selections for April; reviewers are calling it “brutal, tender, and magnificent,” “powerful, desolate, and well-crafted,” and “grave and graceful.” Clearly, the Childs family trilogy has come to a strong conclusion.