What it says on the tin: this is the story of a young woman who ran away from her life, and created a new one wearing trousers. Her life as a girl was intolerable, so she reinvented herself as a man, and when the Civil War came along she, or rather he, enlisted in a spirit of determined patriotism, and became the best soldier in his unit – and a nurse, devoted to his patients, and postmaster (which I never really realized was so dangerous) and attaché and Union spy. And in two years of service to the Union (almost) no one ever even suspected Frank Thompson was actually a girl named Sarah.
I’m not sure what this book is, exactly. (Besides received from Netgalley – thank you to them and the publisher.) It’s based on historic fact, which could make it historical fiction. Moreover, it’s based on the life of a real individual, so maybe it could be called a fictional biography – but no, it’s in the first person, so maybe a fictional memoir. Except that the individual in question, a woman named Sarah Emma Edmonds, wrote a memoir of her own in 1864, so it’s a little odd to have a novelized version.
I read this with the understanding that it was based on a true story, and the notes following the book emphasize this:
Although more than four hundred women are known to have dressed as men to fight in the Civil War, most of them were joining husbands, brothers, fathers, or fiancés. They had someone to help with their disguise and share the burden of their secret. Sarah Emma Edmonds was the only one known to have lived as a man before enlisting.
(I’ll come back to the extraordinary fact of that number, four hundred + women.)
But immediately after stressing the truth of the story, the author reveals that a major event at the end of the book was a complete fabrication, almost exactly the opposite of what really happened. The end of the story is not how the story ended. So, while “the bones of the story are all true”, this event at the end “seemed like something that should have happened, and the advantage of fiction is that you can choose the shape of the story”.
Yes, but – this isn’t fiction. Not really. It’s fictionalized. And I have a problem with the change that was made. Problems. For one, I don’t see making a change this big at the end of the story of a woman few have heard of as any more acceptable than, say, changing the end of a certain evening in April 1864 to have John Wilkes Booth miss his shot, or than saying that eventually Thomas Jefferson freed and married Sally Hemings. Or to have Henry VIII say “You know, that Catherine is actually rather nice. I believe I’ll go back to her and be a good husband.” If a writer takes on the task of writing about a life, about an individual’s existence, to make a change just because it feels like what should have happened is, in my opinion, intellectually dishonest. It breaks faith with the subject of the writing.
The other side of it is that now I have doubts about everything else in the book. There are some highly improbable events in the story, and the story as a whole is improbable, and I went along with all of it because, I was assured, it was all based on history. But. If that last really quite large happening never happened, I’m inclined to doubt the rest, however much the author assures me it’s faithful. There was so much luck running through it – sheer dumb luck that kept Sarah/Frank from major injury in battle, not to mention from discovery – that it became a little hard to swallow; s/he glided through the War like the Maryest of Sues, able to do absolutely anything they set her to: she was a crack shot, a born rider, a gentle and patient nurse with an iron nerve, a natural spy, a daring messenger, and no more concerned about killing the enemy than the next man. So to speak. Very shortly she had everyone thinking Frank was the best fellow ever, and in the two years she fought only completely coverable glitches occurred, and – as I said, almost no one ever even entertaining a suspicion that Frank wasn’t what he seemed to be in two years of sleeping and eating and everything else in close quarters with no real privacy. Only the “but she really existed!” thing kept me going. Once there was a hole knocked in that, all bets were off.
The point is played up that all the names in the book are true to life, that Sarah Emma Edmonds/Frank
Thompson did indeed serve in the same unit with Damon Stewart (hmm) and Jerome Robbins (!) and so on. But I wish the real names had not been used. I feel like this would have been a more honest novel – more honest as a novel – if the heroine had been named Jane Doe calling herself Joe Schmoe, and bunked with a lad named John Doe and fell in love with Richard Roe. Or something. My understanding is that Sarah’s experience served as the backbone of the book, and the plot was filled in with bits and pieces and shreds and patches from other tales of others of the four hundred women. If this had been straightforwardly presented as a composite portrait, leaning heavily on Sarah but not trying to revivify Sarah, I feel it would have been a much better book – a cleaner book, in a way.
Another way to keep it honest would have been to simply tell Sarah’s story without messing about with facts.
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t preen about how factual the story is and then say “well except for this bit here which I just didn’t like the historical reality of”.
Finally, and this is purely a personal reaction, I find it very sad that Frank’s way of proving his masculinity was to tell dirty stories and spit and scratch and fart.