Galveston is, in part, a segment of the story of how the Civil War played out in the West, as the tides of battle washed over Louisiana and Texas and Texas’s small island of (naturally enough) Galveston. It is also, in part, the story of Jamie Russell, a Confederate officer (and unintentional war hero) trying to do his duty amidst whatever PTSD was labeled as at the time (this is pre-shell shock, obviously; nervous exhaustion?), incompetent senior officers (the Union did not, apparently, have the monopoly on nincompoop generals), and Family Issues. A third thread of the story addresses the person of one of those Family Issues: Jamie’s sister Emma, whose beloved was killed in the same battle that has left Jamie scarred; all she wants is to work her family’s ranch, where she is needed, but her mother wants her to go to her aunt to refine her manner. And one more storyline follows Quincy Wheat, a Union naval officer whose ship is, inevitably, headed for Galveston.
That inevitability was a slight drawback to me. It was never less than crystal clear that all three main characters would, against what seemed to be the odds, be in or off Galveston at the same time – and it seemed fairly clear that Emma and Quincy Wheat might do rather more than meet.
The characters are the best aspect of the book. They have dimension and depth, and are good company for the sojourn in 1862. Emma especially is far from a cookie-cutter cliché: she is typical Civil War belle – and even there the true belle of the book, Emma and Jamie’s aunt, is well-drawn. The latter drove me up several walls with her insistence on relocating to Galveston despite constantly repeated warnings from Jamie and everyone else that it was beyond dangerous – and, I suppose, it’s actually a good thing. I believed it (I know people that dense), and to give a reader an emotional reaction is one goal of fiction.
This is the third book of a four-book series, from what I can see, and while for the most part it stands alone respectably well I do look forward to learning the beginning – and end – of the story. What came before was handled quite well here: enough information is provided skillfully enough about what the previous books apparently covered that a new reader is never left floundering, without great chunks of infodump littering the landscape. The end, however, while not a cliffhanger, is unresolved, with very clear loose ends trailing off toward the fourth and, presumably, final book. I had hoped for more of a wrap-up of at least one storyline; as it is, the book presents as a series of incidents rather than a complete arc of beginning, middle, and end. It is, in a way, all middle.
It’s a fascinating era, and these books take in a corner of it not usually seen. I’ve read a great deal of fiction set in the 1800’s, but surprisingly little set in and around the Civil War (apart from Abel Jones). And even in the non-fiction I’ve read and watched the war in the West is largely a blank – even Ken Burns’s Civil War only touched on it glancingly. I appreciate this book, and in fact this series, for putting the spotlight where few others seem to have.
I was surprised at how unfamiliar the Confederate setting was to me, and I wonder if it’s because some writers prefer to stick to the side that won in the end? (Sorry about the spoiler, there.) There was a certain fatalistic quality to it all, and a queasiness when Colonel Forrest was mentioned, and no surprises in how the causes of the War were viewed. The surprise to me was the reaction among Wheat’s crewmates to the Emancipation Proclamation. I knew it was far from universally popular in the North, but this … It felt accurate, and it felt … sad. You know in the larger scheme of things there’s not going to be a happy ending … Unfortunately there wasn’t much of an ending at all: to be continued.
~ Images courtesy Wikimedia Commons