Book Preview – The Hidden Light of Northern Fires by Daren Wang

If there’s a subgenre of historic fiction that I find difficult to turn down, it’s historic fiction set during the American Civil War. There were so many factors at play with consequences rippling through so many groups of people in so many places and so many ways that I don’t think we’ll ever run out of stories to tell about that period of American history. The sheer size and scope of it also makes it difficult to tackle in a novel and trying to engage with too many angles of it at once can be a mistake. There is so much in Daren Wang’s The Hidden Light of Northern Fires that is done well, but I found the novel as a whole to be underwhelming and I think that this is the culprit—plots with great promise that went underdeveloped because there were simply too many of them.

The town of Town Line in New York is near Buffalo but along the border with Canada. This means that the town is home to many slave hunters who make a living catching escaped slaves when they’re just steps away from freedom. But not everyone in town looks fondly on the practice, least of all Mary Willis whose father essentially founded the town and whose sawmill built most of it as well. When an escaped man called Joe turns up in their barn half dead, she calls on the doctor and helps to first heal then conceal the man from the men who would capture Joe and return him south. Tensions in the town rise when the war begins as many young men head off to fight for the Union where others have ties to the Confederacy. Continue reading

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Book Preview – The Second Mrs. Hockaday by Susan Rivers

second mrs hockadayAlways game for a novel set during and around the events of the American Civil War, I didn’t have to read too far into the description of Susan Rivers’ soon-to-be-released The Second Mrs. Hockaday before I knew I wanted to read it. I didn’t think much of the fact that the novel promised to tell the story in question through letters, journal entries, and inquest papers—it actually would have made it more appealing because telling a story through such limited means can lead to particularly creative story-telling. In the case of The Second Mrs. Hockaday however, I think these narrative conventions fail to live up to that potential and ultimately rob the story of some of its natural tension.

Placidia Fincher Hockaday met her husband the day of her step-sister’s wedding and married him the next day when she was but seventeen years old. A widower with an infant son, Major Gryffth Hockaday and his new bride didn’t have much time to themselves before he was called back to the Confederate front lines by his commanders. For the remaining two years the war lasted, they were separated with Placidia running his farm, raising his son, and commanding his slaves. When he returned at the end of the war, he discovered that there were scandalous rumors about just what his wife had been up to in his absence—and with whom. Decades later, the Hockaday children—having buried their parents—begin to uncover their mother’s secrets from those two years, what drove a wedge between their parents, and what brought the couple back together again in the end. Continue reading

Book Preview – Fallen Land by Taylor Brown

book cover - fallen landI honestly don’t remember what it was about the description for Taylor Brown’s upcoming Fallen Land that caught my attention—there’s a pretty good chance it was the Civil War setting and the mention of Sherman’s march to the sea. As far as historic fiction set during that time period goes, you usually get books where the characters are deeply engrossed in the actions of war—the battles, the army maneuvers, the women and children left behind to cope with occupation, etc. Fallen Land follows characters who manage to remain largely on the outskirts of those kinds of things—they’re obviously still impacted, but the war itself is a backdrop rather than the driving force of the plot.

Callum is a teen who has taken up with the Colonel and his band of Confederate-leaning guerilla fighters who raid where and when they can. When the band stumbles across the house where they find seventeen-year-old Ava alone, she becomes the target of some of Callum’s companions’ violent desires. Callum intervenes to protect her and is nearly killed for his trouble. The first opportunity he gets, he heads back to look for her, stealing the Colonel’s horse to do so and bringing him and his men after him. During an altercation with them at Ava’s house, the Colonel is killed and Callum and Ava decide to head south together since neither of them have anything left where they are. It doesn’t take long for them to learn that the Colonel’s men—along with his slave-hunter brother—aren’t going to let the matter drop and are still on their trail. Continue reading

Harriet Beecher Stowe House and Visitor Center

“The obstinacy of cleverness and reason is nothing to the obstinacy of folly and inanity.” – Harriet Beecher Stowe

uncle tom's cabin - book coverHarriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is brought up in almost every American History classroom when it comes time to discuss slavery, the abolitionist movement, and the Civil War. Raised in a religious—and yet surprisingly progressive—household, Stowe championed women’s rights and abolition throughout her career with the encouragement of her family and later, her husband—though Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains the defining work of her writing career.

It was as her career was winding down that Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband moved to Hartford, Connecticut. Through her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, Samuel Clemens became acquainted with the family and—holding similar political beliefs—he decided he liked the family enough to want to be neighbors. Though the two writers were at different points in their careers and ran in very different circles, they seem to have enjoyed being neighbors. For bookworms of today, this is especially fortunate. When my friend and I arrived to tour the Mark Twain House and Museum, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to tour Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house as well (and at a discounted rate).

View of Harriet Beecher Stowe's house from the Clemens' yard (their carriage house is the red-brick building in the foreground).

View of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s house from the Clemens’ yard (their carriage house is the red-brick building in the foreground).

Just as the properties’ occupants ran in different circles, the tours of the two homes are markedly different as well. The Harriet Beecher Stowe house is far more interactive in its exhibits within the house, geared more towards school children and groups actively looking to examine the political issues closest to Stowe and draw parallels to the issues of today. With about eighty percent of the furnishings in the house having belonged to Stowe and her family—including a number of gorgeous floral paintings done by Harriet herself—the smaller scale of the Stowe house does not mean the tour is any shorter than you might find over at her neighbor’s.

In the main entertaining parlor, samples of documents related to slavery and the abolitionist movement are available for visitors to read through and discuss. In an upstairs bedroom are artifacts related to Uncle Tom’s Cabin—because the book was published before copyright laws were revised protecting Stowe’s rights as author, the merchandise on display helps to demonstrate the evolution of the “Uncle Tom” figure from her depiction in the novel through the unauthorized and purposefully altered adaptations that were used in minstrel shows and vaudevilles, twisting her vision to convey a contradictory figure to her original. There are also samples of the more pleasant gifts she received from some of her readers.

The Visitor Center is located between the Clemens' carriage house and Stowe's house.

The Visitor Center is located between the Clemens’ carriage house and Stowe’s house.

The Harriet Beecher Stowe Visitor Center has books and materials available beyond Stowe’s works. Biographies of her contemporaries in the women’s rights and abolitionist movements can be purchased alongside the titles they wrote themselves and books on current political issues. The organization that runs the house offers a variety of tour options for groups—in addition to school trips, if seasonal and weather conditions cooperate there are also tours of Stowe’s gardens. Information for events and programs along with how and where donations should be made can all be found on the organization’s website. Admission for the tour is $10 for adults, $7 if you show your ticket from the Mark Twain House tour.

Book Preview – Spy of Richmond by Jocelyn Green

9780802405791_p0_v1_s260x420My affinity for historic fiction tends to seek out an inordinate number of books set during the American Civil War. Spy of Richmond by Jocelyn Green will be the fourth in her Heroines Behind the Lines series, focusing on the extraordinary lives of women during the Civil War. The books do not need to be read in any order, as there is only a little overlap between the stories (Spy of Richmond is the first I’ve read of the series, but I understand several of the characters first appeared in the second of the series, Widow of Gettysburg).

Sophie Kent is a daughter of Richmond but her Yankee mother insisted on her receiving an education in the north. In part because of this education, Sophie has expressed many opinions disagreeable to her father and neighbors, particularly after the start of the war. There are many who suspect her of more than simple sympathies but after the death of her mother, Sophie takes steps to actively assist the Union put an end to slavery and the war.

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Book Preview – Neverhome by Laird Hunt

9780316370134_p0_v1_s260x420A combination of my fascination with the American Civil War and my feminist leanings made the description for Laird Hunt’s Neverhome stand out in my mind. Neverhome takes a look at the life and struggles of a Civil War soldier both on and off the battlefield but with a twist that raises the stakes: this particular soldier is a woman.

Constance Thompson has the itch to do her part for the Union forces. Most women would be content to send their husbands off to fight while they stay home and support them from afar, sending them care packages and joining local support groups, nursing, raising funds, or gathering supplies. But Constance has always had a more hands on approach to solving her problems and is a pretty good shot. Dressing as a man and adopting the moniker of Ash, Constance leaves her husband to take care of their farm while she crosses state lines to enlist.

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Book Review – Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

After having been so horribly disappointed with The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, I needed to read a piece of historic fiction that I knew would be good and Jeff Shaara’s Gods and Generals did not disappoint. A tribute and prequel to his father’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Killer Angels chronicling the three day Battle of Gettysburg, Gods and Generals focuses on some of those same generals in the few years preceding Gettysburg.

Starting in November 1858 and ending on the eve of Gettysburg, Shaara’s novel switches perspective between Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson who would lead the Confederacy and Winfield Scott Hancock and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who would rise to help lead the Federal army. Shaara’s novel focuses a great deal on the behind the scenes planning on both sides of the battlefield and less on the events of the battles (with the exception of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in the latter half of the novel).

The beginning of the novel is slow-moving and methodical. It felt like Shaara had a difficult time deciding just how and where to focus. He could have shown the first battle of Manassas from Jackson’s perspective (it is, after all, the battle where he earned the nickname “Stonewall”). But instead he mentioned it through Lee who was stuck in Richmond, sifting through the red tape of organizing and supplying the Confederate army while Joe Johnston still held official command. The battle of Shiloh is casually mentioned. Antietam is briefly shown but mostly from Chamberlain’s vantage point with his unit of reserves who only saw the drifting smoke of battle but were behind a hill and didn’t see any action. There is little mention of anything that was happening away from the Virginia front.

At times, this approach felt like a missed opportunity on Shaara’s part (especially after the skill he demonstrated with Hancock’s maneuver at Williamsburg early on; his ability to clearly and effectively narrate the more difficult tactical movements is exhilarating and the continued use of diagrams and maps that were used in The Killer Angels remains a useful supplement). It seems to fit since missed opportunities are what Shaara focuses on for most of the novel, particularly the many retreats of the Union army and the frustrations this caused to less hesitant commanders like Hankcock. I knew that the Union had changed their lead commander several times, but I did not realize or remember that it had happened so many times. Shaara doesn’t leave Lee and the Confederacy out of the line of fire when it comes to chances slipping through powerful fingers.

Knowing that Gettysburg is coming, the focus of the end of the novel is Jackson’s role in Lee’s army and his demise in the days following the battle at Chancellorsville. Shaara is at his best as he captures the tensions of battle and the chess-like precision of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and there are moments when I could faintly hear the voice of David Muccullough narrating. I mainly wish that he had chosen to turn these talents to either of the battles at Manassas because it is the only battlefield I have visited (in fact, that was where I purchased my copy of Gods and Generals). Having walked those historic hills enhanced my appreciation of what took place there and of Shaara’s nuanced novel.

There is only one choice that Shaara made that causes me to pause. Aside from a brief glimpse of an unhappy Chamberlain in the third chapter, he is largely absent from the first half of the book. In fact, I think that the only reason Chamberlain is in the novel at all is because of the role he plays at Gettysburg and, consequently, in The Killer Angels. His only occasional perspective does offer a glimpse at an inexperienced officer, someone who was given a high rank in the military due to necessity and prestige rather than experience. However, with all the time spent away from the famous battlefields and near the battlefields but not actually watching the fighting on those battlefields, much of the time spent with Chamberlain feels like missed opportunities.

Now I’m going to let my inner history nerd show and start planning a trip to Gettysburg while watching Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary (again) and skimming through The Killer Angels (for the third time) before diving into the last novel in the unofficial Shaara Civil War trilogy, The Last Full Measure.