The Court-Martial of Charlie Newell chronicles the Job-like travails of a North Carolina sharecropper who runs afoul of the military’s love of orders and procedure. The page-turning chronicle of one black man’s experience in World War I-era America is always engaging and brings alive a period in the nation’s history that many would rather forget. The story is a fictional account based on a 1918 court-martial.
Newell is part of a trio of church-going young black country men who belong to an obscure church that believes Saturday is the Sabbath and war – even wearing a military uniform – is wrong. Denied conscientious objector status by their local draft board, and facing the prejudices of the early 20th-Century, the trio is forcibly inducated into the military. Problems ensue, as their refusal to adhere to military rules because of religious objections is by turns viewed as cowardice, insubordination and, finally, defiance that threatens orderly command..
At the center of the story is Charlie Newell, more educated and spiritual than his companions. As his two fellow objectors give in to the military demand to work on Saturday and take a Sunday Sabbath, as required by standard military practice and procedure, Newell clings to his belief that he is following the word of God and refuses to go along. His stubborn insistence vexes a host of military commanders, some of them sympathetic, some wishing the whole problem would be handled on a small scale, others pushing for a full court martial in their desire to crush a presumedly defiant black man.
Eventually, Newell winds up in a series of military jails and prisons, including the dreaded Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. There, his faith is tested by outside events and eventually subsumed by a hardening of the soul the institution and other circumstances bring out. Yet, outside the prison, some with a sense of justice are working hard to right the wrongs against Charlie Newell.
Though eventually released from prison, Newell again runs afoul of the law, resulting in an ending that many readers will find disturbing.
Author Gerard Shirar has a very crisp and engaging style, vividly painting the world of Charlie Newell and the attitudes of his contemporaries. Although the story’s focus is, by necessity, involved in endless meetings surrounding Newell and his stubborn refusal to follow orders, the pace of the story is never boring and seldom bogs down. The author’s ear for dialog and dialect is strong, and the reader never feels that he’s being pandered to by caricatures.
While engaging, the problem with “Charlie Newell” as a novel lies in its plotting and a few missed opportunities. The story loses steam in the third act (a common problem for many writers) and never really recovers its earlier footing.
Case in point: Charlie’s faith is tested when he discovers his wife is murdered and he abandons his former Bible-loving ways for a time. Yet this crisis of the soul, which demands an examination of his deeper motives and an introspective, Aquinas-like search for revelation, is not dealt with extensively. Thus, Charlie’s actions appear governed more by circumstance and superstituion than unshakeable belief, which removes much of the power from his actions and reduces the overall tone of the story. Much as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” drew its strength from the subtext of McCarthyism and not its actual storyline of a witch hunt, so Charlie Newell’s saga must be about faith and its transformative power in order to resonate with a reader. Without a deep, enlightening examination of what has happened to him and a question of why it has happened, Charlie Newell loses momentum.
However, the sheer power and passion of the overall writing carries the day, and time spent with Charlie Newell will not disappoint any reader.