Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

I'm going to be straight-up honest: the American Civil War is nowhere near the top of my favorite historical periods. I don't have the patience for it and would much rather be slogging through medieval manuscripts. Okay, maybe not manuscripts, but books talking about medieval manuscripts. (I know old paper would be starting my allergies up again, like that thirty year old Antonia Fraser book I have on the Queen of Scots.) I just don't have the patience for a bunch of stupid men , and I hate arguing about how the civil war started (for the record, it's slavery; every other argument leads back to slavery--you're welcome to disagree with me, but I'll still be right). 

Despite this antipathy, I still picked up Robert Hicks' book The Widow of the South. It was on the bargain table at the book store, the cover intrigued me, and the jacket description. Set during and after the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee, the story is based on the true story of Carrie McGavock, whose home was used as a hospital and who later created a cemetery for nearly 1500 dead. 

Hicks weaves history and fiction together in a book that is less about the war and more about the people affected by the war. The Civil War is often seen in military and political terms, with the social impact only being explored in the last half-century. Within the reality of Carrie's story, Hicks created Zacariah Cashwell, a man from Arkansas that spent weeks in the McGavock hospital following the carnage at Franklin. During this time, the two became friends, and an old-fashioned romance blossomed between the two, a link that would hold them together through to the ends of their lives. 

The story is told in alternating points of view, usually either Carrie or Cashwell. The book switches from third person to first person as well, but the transition in voice was so seamless that this did not bother me. Cashwell's first person narrative was very earthy and filled with colloquialisms, while Carrie's narration sounded more from someone who was used to moving in the highest circles. The voices were so different that had Hicks not titled the beginning of each chapter I'd still be able to figure out whose head I was in. When not with Carrie or Cashwell, the narration was various secondary characters either in the army or in town, but only ever enough to move the story forward. 

The characterization was also very good. Each character, even the smallest ones, moved and changed throughout life, the events at the Battle of Franklin marking each person on physical, emotional, and mental levels. Hicks' characters were real, flawed, and likable. When a book is able to capture my emotions (and make me careful about reading it in class, lest I cry in front of my students), I know it's good. Well, unless my emotions tell me to throw it across the wall from boredom. 

But since I was not bored at all with this book, I give it an extra special A+. Thank you, Mr. Hicks, for being captured by the story of the Widow of the South. 

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