I recently read Sheldon Greene’s latest novel Prodigal Sons, as a consequence I decided to dip further into the work of this very fine author. His second book Burnt Umber caught my attention, and away I went.

I have to admit that I was a little surprised, while Prodigal Sons is without doubt a novel set in the past, Burnt Umber is a full blown Historical Novel. When history meets fiction there is often friction. It is a difficult genre to pull off. Someone somewhere will find a flaw and down you go!

Sheldon Greene has produced a truly curious book with Burnt Umber, his choices for protagonists are unusual to say the least. Neither the German painter Franz Marc, nor the American sculptor Harry Baer (Harold Paris) are exactly well known figures outside of the art world, yet in their own way they did have a profound effect on the art world in the 20th century.

In real life these two people never met, yet Sheldon finds a way to interweave the lives of the two artists. Actually is is not that far fetched, what if Harry Baer did find a sketchbook of Franz Marc in an abandoned French farmhouse during the height of world war two? Stranger things have happened. The sketch book haunts Baer, giving him the urge to create art. 978-0967952017

Maybe the strangest part of entwining these two people is that Franz Marc was an idealist who died in the First World Way fighting for the Kaiser, truly believing that a German victory was the salvation of the world. Harry Baer (the fictionalized Harold Paris) was a Jewish American who fought in World War Two. Although it is physically impossible that the two could ever have met, it is interesting to conceive of what their conversation would have been.

The crux of Burnt Umber is not about the relationship between the artists, but rather their relationships with the women in their lives. Both seemed to be attracted to forceful women, women that today we accept as our wives, girlfriends, or companions. Back 50 or 100 years that was not the case. Subservience ruled.

Burnt Umber is a novel on a grand scale. Likely grander than most first time authors should attempt, yet Sheldon Greene pulls it off. He manages to move from the trenches of World War I to the backlash against the Vietnam War. All the while he is using the females in the story to analyze the lives of these two artists.

I will be the first to admit that Burnt Umber is a complex book, it is best read in small pieces. The concepts need to be ‘bitten off and chewed’. The rewards though are huge. There are little gold nuggets of insight scattered thought the pages. It is not so much the artists that are the stars, but the women they associate with.

It is my understanding that Sheldon Greene is a student of art history, and Burnt Umber bears witness to that fact. I do hope to have the opportunity to interview the author in the near future, and must confess that I am looking forward to doing so. A man who can put together books like Prodigal Sons and Burnt Umber is clearly a deep thinker.

You can order your copy of Burnt Umber by clicking on the cover art above.

Simon Barrett

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