The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by Delia Falconer
Updated: Feb 1, 2022
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers by the Australian writer Delia Falconer is an unusual book. It’s narrated by Captain Frederick Benteen, a soldier in Custer’s army who some Americans believed could have saved Custer's Seventh Cavalry from death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Over the years, Benteen has silently watched as the pubic canonized Custer for dying and cursed Benteen for surviving. As he's nearing the end of his life, Benteen receives a letter from a young boy promising to restore his reputation, which prompts him to reflect about that battle and what happened there.
As Benteen recalls those two horrific days when they were pinned down on a ridge in Montana, he finds himself haunted by memories of his lost companions: Star-Gazer, Handsome Jack, the bugler De Rudio. His memories are tangled with memories of his early life, his marriage to his wife Frabbie, and the five children they bore, all of whom died but one. The story contains no bloody battle scenes, but, rather, dwells on the inner life of these soldiers, what they hoped for and suffered, who they were that they could not confess, and what kinds of bonds with one another were at the core of their lives.
It's a slim volume—only 128 pages—and is perfect for an afternoon of sinking in to a tale told from the inward-facing recollections of an outward-facing man. It is a story of what it means to be a soldier and to be a human—the great suffering, the consequential joys, and the near-universal silence about it all.
Here are a few selections from Falconer's exquisite prose:
The book begins with Benteen at his home in Georgia. He is an old man and suffers the indignities that come with age. Facing the common affront of finding it difficult to pee, Benteen remembers a story from when he was a young boy. The memory draws us close to him and makes us trust his coming, more difficult, recollections.
The urge to urinate is constant, the results are always paltry. Lately he has taken to carrying the pan out through the back door to the rose beds, watching the ants run when he pours his trickle on the damp soil near the roots. In New York, in a dark cathedral entrance, an old nun once sold him candy. She told him how the medieval monks would piss in the stained glass when it was molten to produce the creamy yellow. That one thought changed the whole of Europe for him. She had mimed it, leaning backwards, the invisible cock in one clawed hand. Her old eyes were bright, but not salacious. He recognized her as a young girl in a farmyard. He feels a cousin pleasure here, in the thought of his own sluggish fluids emerging perfumed and phosphorescent in those canary-yellow blooms.
So, by page one, Falconer has me in the palm of her hand.
In remembering the short courtship of his wife, Frabbie, when he was all man, he describes the subsequent loss of his vigor this way:
Once, before the years of snow and drink and failure brought these sharp spasms to his bladder, he could go into a mad rut just to see the inside of Frabbie's wrist.
The inside of her wrist. A perfect detail.
There are people that keep returning to his memories, including Custer and his wife Libby, neither of whom he recollects fondly. In remembering Libby, Benteen describes her this way:
Walking through the camp, scissors in her hand to trim the General's hair, humming to herself, she watched to see if they were watching. He believed she had no private thoughts, only, like Custer, a kind of extravagant instinct for standing where the light would catch her best.
Star-Gazer is the thoughtful, philosopher among the men. Each night her writes in his journal, thoughts he sometimes shares. Benteen remembers many of Star-Gazer's philosophical conclusions. This is one:
Something else Star-Gazer said, he cannot quite remember—about history being the sum of the griefs we choose, more than the triumphs.
And again, Benteen remembering Star-Gazer when they came upon an abandoned Indian camp:
The beaded dress abandoned in the tents along with the dried meat and furs, and a young woman's shape held perfectly within the softness of the deerskin; he remembers Star-Gazer squatting down beside it for a long time with his cigarette unlit.
An unlit cigarette. Again the detail tells all.
In trying to explain to Frabbie about what it was like to prepare for battle, he tell her this:
This is what you did before a battle, he said to Frabbie last night; you had to fold your life like a jacket you would return to, and leave it with De Rudio and his trumpet, or in among the bushes; important to move weightless and unburdened toward your horse, otherwise your life's tender weight would trip you up. And Frabbie asked him, Do you think this is a feeling women never have?
The use of “never” in that sentence is jarring, exactly as it should be.
It’s the boy's letter than has sparked these recollections, causing Benteen to wander through small memories that are rarely about the battle, and much more about the easily unnoticed actions and comments of the men that gave away their inner lives, their worries, their unsuitedness to the job of soldiering. At various points in the book, Benteen forces himself to pay attention to what has sparked his reverie with the words “Explain to the boy--” and then what follows is another recollection that has nothing to do with the battle but everything to do with their humanity:
Explain to the boy. The shock was in seeing the Indians as more than an idea. They had grown used to inventing them out of the signs they found, their light tracks upon the snow, the birch bark rubbed by their ponies. They rocks they found sometimes stacked into mute messages in glades where bison flies hung low in cool air above the moss.
Tell the boy: who knows if we make history or are made, some impressionable pulp within us held for one brief lifetime by the small simplicities.
At one point he admits that the vast depths of these men—their fears, worries, longings, loves—were largely unspoken:
How little they really told each other of their lives; they did not try, as women do, to make each other less predictable, to rifle in the secret drawers, to find each other out. Instead, each gratefully took over the role assigned, made his language over, offered up his inner longings only as a punchline. We are the fastidious sex, he thinks.
The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers is a beautiful book. Falconer's writing is lyrical, pricking at the hot center of what happened that was not the battle. Her minute details anchor the story: the invisible cock in one clawed hand, the back of Frabbie's wrist, the unlit cigarette—the detail that says it all. Focusing on Benteen's recollections at the end of his life lends the stories an honesty that might have only been possible when Captain Benteen had nothing left to lose. The letter from the boy and his enthusiasm for redeeming Benteen's reputation prompts the Captain to reflect on what happened in the hearts of the men while they lived in their fear and confusion at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Ultimately, though, Benteen has no need for redemption. Knowing these men and recollecting honestly and compassionately on their lives is salvation enough.
You can order The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers at your local bookstore or online at:
Barnes and Noble as an e-book https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lost-thoughts-of-soldiers-delia-falconer/1102217303?ean=9781582436562
And if you want to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana, it is a breathtaking look into our history: https://www.nps.gov/libi/index.htm
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >