OWU professor’s novel honored again

Alex Emerson

Transcript Correspondent


An award-winning, Civil War era-novel about a boy’s search for his father led by a mysterious black horse and written by an Ohio Wesleyan creative writing professor has once again been honored.

The Ohioana Library Association chose Robert Olmstead’s book “Coal Black Horse” as one of 90 books by Ohio authors to celebrate the organization’s 90th anniversary. The winners are divided by decade on the “90 Years … 90 Books” list going back to the founding of the library association. The books can be found on the organization’s blog.

Olmstead’s book is on the list for 2007, the year it was published.  He said he is in good company.

“I have a good relationship with Ohioana. Looking at the list, it’s surprising to see how many great authors are from Ohio,” said Olmstead, an English professor and OWU’s director of creative writing.

This isn’t the first time “Coal Black Horse” has received critical acclaim. The book received the 2007 Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize for Fiction. In 2008, it earned an Ohioana award for fiction and the American Library Association award as the Best Book for Young Adults.

Olmstead’s story takes place during the Civil War in the wake of the battle of Gettysburg after a boy’s mother has a premonition her husband was killed. She sends her 14-year-old son out to search for him astride an unusual black horse, which leads and protects the boy throughout their journey.

Olmstead said he happened upon the idea for the plot while living in Gettysburg.

“I’m more interested in what runs through the history than the history itself. I was living in Gettysburg as a tourist and had no intention of writing a historical novel,” Olmstead said. “But as I explored the town, its history drew me in irrevocably.”

The book was aimed at focusing on the relationship between American people and war.

“More Americans died in the Civil War than in all of America’s following wars combined,” he said. “This legacy of war, this inheritance of violence literally passes down through families. America has been fighting wars as long as my students have been alive.”

“Coal Black Horse” is the first book of a trilogy. The second novel is “Far Bright Star” and the third is “The Coldest Night.”

“Far Bright Star” has also received recognition. Chauncey Mabe, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, said it is “guided by Hemingway,” and that “a writer as skillful and subtle as Olmstead deserves to be judged on his own merits, influences be damned.”

The last two books continue to explore an inheritance of violence. The protagonist in each story is the child of the protagonist from the last book, living through a different war, Olmstead said.

Olmstead plans to publish more books in the future.

(Editor’s Note: after this interview our correspondent enrolled in Olmstead’s fiction writing class)