A Distant Flame – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
Georgian novelist Philip Lee Williams A distant flame (2004) chronicles the struggle of an old man, Charlie Merrill, to make sense of his memories and his life. Williams’ most ambitious and successful novel to date, A distant flame received the 2004 Michael Shaara Award for Civil War Fiction and in 2005 was listed among the Georgia Center for the Book’s Top Twenty-Five Outstanding Books by Georgian Authors.
A Civil War veteran (1861-1865) and editor of a small town newspaper, Charlie Merrill is nationally known for his columns and books. Through alternating chapters set in 1861-1863, 1864, and 1914, the novel tells a story of love, a story of war, and Charlie’s struggles to come to terms with his life. The last chapter of the novel takes place in 1918.
The chapters covering 1861-1863 follow the relationship between Charlie, who lives in the fictional Branton, Georgia, and Sarah, a girl from Boston, Massachusetts, who came to live with her uncle in Branton while her parents divorced. The relationship ended in 1864, when Sarah moved to England to live with her father. Chapters set in 1864 chronicle Charlie’s experiences as a soldier and sharpshooter with the Confederate Army as it retreated before the forces of Union General William T. Sherman, during the Atlanta Campaign . (contemporary novel by EL Doctorow walking  continues the story of Sherman’s march to the sea, from a mostly Norse perspective.) From an old man’s perspective in 1914, Charlie prepares to deliver a speech commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of ‘Atlanta. In doing so, he remembers his wartime experiences and his relationship with Sarah.
Williams’ research for A distant flame was prodigious, and his detailed knowledge of the Civil War provides rich historical context. In his afterword, Williams describes how he prepared to write the novel by reading letters, journals, diaries, and other accounts from the time. From these first-hand sources, he learned much about the way the men and women of that time spoke and thought, and there is good reason to trust the novel’s depiction of life at home and on the battlefronts during the Civil War. (The town of Branton is based on Madison, where Williams grew up).
The novel focuses primarily on the white residents of a small town in Georgia, but Williams is careful to document the social realities of the times in which they lived, including the reality of slaves and slavery. Although it shows a close relationship between the Merrill family and some of their slaves, it clarifies that the slaves had no choice in their condition, that their lives were coerced, and that they sometimes expressed their displeasure with their condition. . As an old man, Charlie is convinced that slavery was wrong.
A distant flame does not glorify the Civil War or the Old South, but rather offers intense and compelling descriptions of the combat, and conveys an understanding of the unpleasant and supernatural horrors of battle – not only the violence and carnage, but also the unhealthy conditions in which soldiers lived and often died. Charlie doesn’t go to war out of Southern patriotism but rather for personal reasons – out of grief at losing Sarah and the deaths of family members. Although he sympathizes with the Confederate cause, Charlie never embraces it, and his sense of distance, indifference, and ability to see the conflict between North and South on both sides allow him to see the war more fully. than a biased observer could not. .
Ultimately A distant flame talks about Charlie’s efforts to understand and come to terms with the realities of his life, including his lost love, the fate of his family members, his experiences during the retreat to Atlanta, his feelings about the war, and his perception of himself- even as a journalist and public citizen. It is similar in this respect to Williams’ first novel, In the heart of a distant forest (1984), which is also about an elderly man assessing his life’s progress. Ultimately, Charlie achieves some sense of accomplishment for his life, but he also feels disappointed and bitter. Her disappointment illuminates a major theme of the novel: as we grow older and look back, life rarely seems as full as we would like.