I picked up The Widow of the South, by Robert Hicks, from the Library’s Used Book Store after my Book a Day Calendar recommended it.
It is another “here is the vague historical basis and here is how I imagine the rest” novel. Like Coming Through Slaughter, there are notes at the end containing some verifiable facts. Way more than Coming Through Slaughter, I might add.
The facts are that on November 30, 1864 there was a big battle in Franklin, TN. 9,200 casualties over a five hour period, which the notes say is more than in 12 hours on D-Day and double Pearl Harbor. Just for some perspective. A private home was turned into a hospital. The lady of the manor, Carrie McGavock, had lost three of her five children to various illnesses in the preceding years but she pulled it together and took care of lots of people. 1,500 people are now buried in her backyard.
The novel is written from multiple points of view, which you know I love. And I was pleased with the use of language. This was from a Union officer, a rather minor character in the scheme:
“What I saw was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and I wished to never see it again. In the distance the entire Army of Tennessee stood on line. All of them. We’d been fighting out here in the west, in Alabama and Mississippi and Tennessee, always hemmed in by rivers and forests and tight little winding roads, and I had never thought about what thousands of men would look like if they stood out and faced us. But there they were. They shimmered in the distance, the warming air making them look wavy like a dream, something from another world. There were flags of all sorts flapping in the wind, the red and blue cross on their battle flag, the odd, faded blue and white flags of one of the divisions in the center. Sounds of brass bands, one playing “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” I wanted them to stay there always, frozen in their splendor. An odd happiness possessed me then, and I can only explain it by saying that I had fought them so long, and they had fought so hard I was proud to finally see them in their entirety.”
At its heart, the story is about life and death and when we are afraid and when we are numb and how we manage to connect with other people in the middle of it. And Nathan Bedford Forrest was a bastard.
I really love that the connection between Carrie and wounded Confederate soldier guy, Zachariah, was based on mutual understanding (or attempting) between people that otherwise had little in common. It was not about the smoochie-smoochies. It was not about escaping from the hell of the blahblahblah.
It kind of avoided the subject of slavery. In a “Carrie’s servant was a lifelong friend that never left her” way. Franklin had long been occupied by Union troops, so Mr. McGavock sent people south to family to avoid their being conscripted into the Union Army. Zachariah’s attitude was, “I don’t have a problem with them, but did we really fight that war so that this guy could have a cobbler shop?”
However, Zachariah had a moment after the war. Working on a train line or something, he saw a young black man that had been enslaved, for “crimes” and chained outside the camp. After awhile, he makes an appeal to Forrest, of all people, and the guy is set free. Zachariah and a bud know they are screwed so they bolt. The young man is caught and drowned. So what would have been the right thing to do?
The book begins and ends in 1894, with most of the story told in flashback. I would have appreciated more time spent in 1894. But I liked that the story didn’t drag on, so I can’t really complain about that. The best part is that it looks like Franklin Tennessee is prime territory for a road trip.