I’ve been a lukewarm fan of the author’s Sebastian St. Cyr books for a while now, neither avoiding them nor actively seeking them out, and thought this would be a safe bet, especially with an American Civil War setting.
It was safe, in that it was – as expected – solidly written, with good, well-rounded characters and a deep setting written knowledgeably. Dialogue was natural and believable. But in the end I enjoyed it rather less than the St. Cyr books. It’s first person POV thirteen-year-old Amrie, and there were times I just wasn’t comfortable with some of the things she comes out with – would she really know that a certain Union general I’ve never heard of was unpopular with his men?
Near the beginning of the book it comes out that there is a woman in the area who must be a spy, a traitor to the South – and there’s suspicion wafting about that she might be Amrie’s mother. It’s a strange mystery that surfaces and submerges throughout the book until it kind of gets forgotten about. It starts out being one of the most important things in the girl’s life – who is it? Could it be her mother? – and then … it stops.
‘Damn this war. Damn Abraham Lincoln and every hotheaded Southerner who pushed for secession and every sanctimonious Northern abolitionist who ever thought that one sin justifies another. Damn them, damn them, damn them.’
I’m almost embarrassed to admit how painful I found the frequent disparagement of Union soldiers, and even more that of Abraham Lincoln. Oh, and Grant and Sherman owned slaves. (Prove it.) Objectively, I get it. There’s the wider lens, through which of course anyone in the Confederate States would never have a positive word for Lincoln, and of course their direct experience of the occupying army would be far stronger than any stories of atrocities by the Confederate Army. (And as to those atrocities, I really only need to say two words: “Forrest”, and “Andersonville”.) But it caused a knee-jerk belligerent reaction every time – “Oh yeah? Come over here and say that“… Know what? The South started it. The South lost. Lincoln did what he had to to preserve as much as he could. I’d drop a microphone if I had it.
I am unendingly tired of people – real or fictional – who are diametrically opposed to a cause and yet lend it their skills. Both of Amrie’s parents are adamantly anti-slavery. Amrie says of her mother “nothing riled her more than slavery and war”.So do they work to improve slaves’ lots in life? Do they abandon the South and go North to work with and fight for the Union, and make some effort to change the attitudes of the abolitionists who apparently had the right idea and the wrong execution? Nope. For obvious reasons, the unrelenting horrors faced by Amrie and her family reminded me of Gone With the Wind, except with no apology for the “peculiar institution”, no sympathy, which was good. Even better, there’s a sort of an anti-Ashley among the characters; I hated Ashley. I made a note about another book set in the Reconstruction South that when the Doctor asks me when and where I want to go in the TARDIS, I will possibly say “anywhere but then and there.” I suppose, depending on how you look at it, war can bring out the best in some people – but in all the rest it exposes nothing but bad. It’s hard to read.
What makes it even a little harder to read, and one of the biggest reasons I just could not like this book, was the author’s habit of ending nearly every single section – whether chapter or section broken out by skipped lines, or occasionally just paragraphs – with a weighty pronouncement, a one-sentence summation of the events just described or, more often, a single sentence of foreshadowing. “But God had other ideas.” “But I was about to learn that bargains don’t work any better than prayers.” And so on. And on. AND on. They were everywhere. It got to be somewhere between funny and one-more-and-I’ll-scream. This sort of thing is like salt – some is good. More is not better.
I have to say I hated the end. Which will get spoiler-y, so continue reading warned thus in five …
Still here? Here’s the spoiler.
In the very last pages, Amrie’s father comes home, apparently safe and sound. His family rushes to greet him. The End. And it bothered me, deeply – because there is no way he’s safe and sound. He has gone through hell, was if I recall correctly wounded and captured, and is coming back to a place that has been gutted. His home is all but gone; his neighbors have been decimated, or worse; most of his possessions are gone; his wife and daughter are not remotely the same woman and child he left behind. So, yes, it’s lovely that they all survived. But that’s not the end. And what comes after may in some ways be worse than what has gone before. The book had to end somewhere – but I felt like this was a terrible place to drop the story.
The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.