Monday, February 2, 2009

Title Sixteen: The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks

For Civil War buffs like me, Robert Hicks has created a well-told tale of the Battle of Franklin. In November 1864, the Union and Confederate forces met on the outskirts of this nondescript Tennessee town and clashed in a bloody battle that left 9,200 men dead and had far-reaching ramifications for not only the town's residents but the soldiers on both sides. Carrie McGavock, a grieving mother of three whose husband and two surviving children mean little to her as she inhabits a ghost world where her dead children still live, laugh, and play, finds her home, Carnton, rudely turned into a field hospital for the Confederate wounded. This snaps Carrie back to a reality she never wanted to see again and transforms her from a shadow woman into an efficient nurse, house mistress, and sparks a love between this refined gentlewoman and a crude Cracker soldier named Zachariah Cashwell, with whom Carrie spends hours, not caring what anyone may think - not her husband, John, her slave, Mariah, nor Mariah's son Theopolis. Carrie tends to the dead and dying, writing to their families and hoping against hope that Zachariah will not be taken from her too, but it is not meant to be when he is pronounced fit enough to be carried off by the Union army to a prison camp and Mariah once again loses a piece of herself. However, this time she is stronger and begins to fight for what she believes in, refusing to accept that the dead men buried in her fields can be forgotten.

Other characters weave in and out of the narrative, which takes the form of journal entries or perspectives from Union soldiers and Cashwell himself, as well as third-person accounts of John McGavock and Mariah's forays into the ravaged town of Franklin. Franklin itself becomes a symbol of the defeated South itself, from burned buildings and destroyed roads to the homes and shops of free issue slaves. Cashwell escapes his prison and goes to work for a time on the railroads, but something pulls him inexorably back towards Franklin, Carnton, and Carrie. The Widow of the South is a love story in a similar vein as Gone with the Wind, but the two could not be more different. The two novels share only the descriptions of the hardship of the "War Between the States," the loss of so many brave men who died for nothing, the poverty and hunger of the aftermath, and the jarring difference between life before and after the war. Carrie and Zachariah's love is not epic or sweeping, like that of Scarlett and Rhett; it is more basic, more earthy, and more real.*

Towards the end of the novel, the McGavocks realize that a wealthy neighbor who owns most of their land (John having sold it off, piece by piece over the years to finance, at first, his family's lifestyle and later, his incessant drinking, the only activity which gives him solace) has decided to dig up the graves of the boys who died on the McGavock property - on the carpets, the floors, the porch, in the yard, and whose amputated limbs were dumped like so much chattel out of the kitchen windows and doors during cruel field operations. This neighbor hates the Confederacy because his only son left to fight for the Cause and was killed instantly on the Franklin battlefield. Carrie musters every ounce of rage, horror, and deviousness in her heart and mind and blackmails old Mr. Baylor into leaving the ground undisturbed. It is then that Carrie McGavock undertakes the greatest project of her life: turning those fields into one of the largest, if not the largest, Confederate cemetery in existence, erecting a marker at each grave and keeping a detailed log of each soldier in a book that never leaves her side as she makes her daily rounds, dressed in old, neatly-mended black, accompanied by the faithful (and psychically gifted) Mariah. Carrie continues these rounds into her old, widowed age, and the novel is nicely bookended by scenes of her, going about her caretaker's business, in 1894, when a mysterious man returns to Carnton. If you've read this far, you already know that Zachariah Cashwell, suffering from consumption, has come back to his home - which is both Carrie and Carnton - to die.

What struck me most, besides the honesty and keen attention to detail of Hicks' novel, was the fact that Carrie McGavock was a real person and Hicks leaves no stone unturned in his research. It's a beautiful, haunting, and excellently-written book that I strongly recommend to anyone with a love of history, Americana, true patriotism, human compassion, and the strength of the human spirit.

*GwtW remains my favorite novel to this day.

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