Genre: Historical fiction.
Description: the novel’s subtitle is “A Novel of the Civil War and the Most Famous Female Militia in American History”. That sums it up very well. It has the same kind of historical sweep as War and Peace but is, mercifully, half the length. (But only half the length!). The book begins in 1856, just before the war, and covers the period through to a day or so after Grant surrendered to Lee at Appomattox Court House in 1865.
Author: Glen Craney has been a lawyer, a journalist, and a screenwriter before turning his hand to fiction. He claims to have given up the law. His fictional preference is historical (sometimes with a history-and-mystery element) and he ranges widely through the centuries. He has also written novels set during the Great Depression, the Albigensian Crusade of 1209-1229, the reign of Robert the Bruce in Scotland (14th century), World War I, and the Age of Discovery in Portugal in the 15th century. He lives in Malibu (lucky man). His website is at www.glencraney.com
Appraisal: This is a very interesting book. Craney is obviously fond of research. I cannot think but that a LOT of background work went into this book, yet the author wears that learning lightly. One tiny detail will, perhaps, serve to illustrate the whole: in a couple of places Craney refers to a ‘campaign hat’ – this is obviously not a Stetson, but a hat specifically worn by military men, usually in the cavalry. The point is not laboured, but I appreciated the nuanced information and acknowledged it as I went by. There is a lot of this kind of thing, reflected also in Craney’s vocabulary (which is of the period and not glossed, but completely comprehensible). Not only does this reassure the reader that the author knows what he is about, but the colour it brings to the book makes it jump off the page. I salute him for it. I defy you not to learn from this book. Yet it is emphatically not a history book: it is great entertainment.
All the hardships, battles and sieges are here, all the personalities, on both sides. The main characters are real people. Heaven knows how Craney found them. He has done a great job of imagining the undocumented parts of their lives. (And if you are interested in what happened to them next, there is an Afterword containing what he was able to find out about that.) Craney has stitched together a cohesive work of fiction from the primary and secondary sources he has mined, and made a book which gallops along like charging cavalry.
Not only is this book informative about the Civil War, it has much to say about the human heart, then and now. Craney observes the widening chasm between Abolitionists and Secessionists, the way each side begins to demonise the other, how this quickly hardens, carries forward into the war and, of course, lives on after it. It reminded me very much of Trump and his fake news. As it was published in 2021 this may have been intentional. It demonstrates how the human ability to create and transmit rumour has been a powerful force for mischief long before our age of soshul meeja.
The book examines events in the North and in the South through a primary protagonist on each side: Hugh La Grange in the North and Nancy Brown Morgan in the South. The insults, misunderstandings, and umbrages taken multiply until you can clearly hear the artillery firing. Craney is at pains not to sugarcoat the misery and anguish of war, and there are parts of it you will not want to read on a full stomach.
As well as being a really great adventure story, the book has much to say about why we should never go to war. All the more poignant now that Putin has invaded Ukraine. In the American Civil War brothers and cousins fought on opposite sides. We’ve had two wars like that in Britain. Now there is one in Ukraine where soi-disant ‘brothers’ are being fired upon. When will it stop?
I should just add that in the early part of the book I found it difficult to warm to the characters. Both Northern and Southern characters kept sneering, sniggering, scowling, snarling (not the women), smirking, taunting, snarking, and snickering at each other and putting each other down. They all drank in secret (including the women), many of them to serious excess. As the hardships of the war increase this unloveable behaviour reduces. I think now this may have been a deliberate ploy, to allow the characters to grow as the war touches them more nearly.
One final point: I read a soft copy of this book. There are quite a lot of illustrations of the characters and places in it – an enriching experience in themselves. Kindle still doesn’t handle this sort of thing well, so I urge you to fettle a paperback copy if you can, when the quality of the book will be best enjoyed.
This review was originally prepared for Big Al & Pals, for which I received a complimentary e-book.