- Lambs of Men
Charles Dodd White's short novel, Lambs of Men, is an interesting tale of a father and son's search for wholeness and fulfillment. Set in 1920, Hiram Tobit, a Marine sergeant who saw battle in World War I, makes his way from the Marine base in Parris Island, South Carolina, to his home in the western North Carolina highlands to fulfill his new orders—to secure new recruits from his home area to replenish the Marine Corps, whose losses were considerable during the war. Tobit makes this journey home with great reluctance and apprehension, as long-standing hostilities and new atrocities await him. Not the least of these is reuniting with his alcoholic father, Sloane Tobit, who some years earlier, in a fit of drunkenness, shot and killed his older son Kite and hid his burial place from their mother who has since committed suicide.
Among the other hostilities are those held by Hiram's boyhood friend Henry Buchanan who lost his legs in the war, and the general negative disposition of the town, including the local church and its pastor, toward Hiram's recruiting more of their young men for such unnecessary brutality and sacrifice as war. Nothing, however, tops Matthew Vaughn's murder and dismemberment of his daughter who has gotten pregnant out of wedlock. The search for and apprehension of Old Man Vaughn is what finally brings Hiram and his father together for the first time since Hiram left home to join the Marines. Matthew Vaughn's descent into madness and his subsequent trial and sentencing provide the opportunity for Hiram and Sloane to recover what is left of their father/son relationship, even as they move individually toward a place of comfort with their respective pasts.
Lambs of Men is brimming with blood and gore. From Hiram's memory of the Marine Corps' losses in the Belleau Wood, France, to the present-day Vaughn atrocity, people are sacrificed to satisfy the selfish needs of others. Vaughn's atrocity is juxtaposed with a massacre of a young family, which includes the cutting and skinning alive of a seven-year-old boy, the story of which is related by Hiram who heard it from his mother who had heard it from her forebears who had suffered but survived the loss. Yet another layer of mayhem concerns the kidnapping of a child's doll by a group of wayward boys who nailed it to a tree. In the aftermath of his war experience, Hiram thinks to himself "why should God ask so many of [End Page 104] his sons to die for him. What kind of father would ask such things?" Of course, no comforting answer is forthcoming.
While Lambs of Men is an interesting story, it is ultimately not a compelling one. For all of White's keen and wonderful attention to the details of place and custom, the story itself is often disjointed and ineptly narrated. There are gaps that a more capable writer would have filled in, such as the details attending Sloane's journeys into town, and the placement of Nara Tobit's story at the end of the novel, almost as an afterthought. Similarly, several of the other characters are dropped before it is clear what their purpose is. Although there are some wonderful phrases in the narrative, and despite the presence of a sense of embellishment and humor often associated with southern storytelling, Lambs of Men lacks the narrative pace and the affirmation usually associated with great fiction. [End Page 105]
Warren J. Carson serves as an academic vice chancellor at the University of South Carolina Upstate and lives in Tryon, North Carolina. He frequently works with the College Board as an administrator of their testgrading sessions.