BOOK REVIEW: Widow of the South

May’s pick for our When Johnny Comes Marching Home: A Civil War Book

Widow of the South

Discussion is The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks.

This book had been sitting on my to be read bookshelf for more than 8 years (and yes, I do have an entire bookcase of books that I have not read yet!). I remember picking it up in the grocery store, of all places, when I was out shopping with my grandmother, and thinking it was intriguing enough to go in my cart. Eight years later, the book finally made it to the top of my list for this book club.

It’s November 1864 and the Civil War has waged on for more than 3 1/2 years now. Carrie McGavock is sitting in her bedroom, rocking back and forth in her chair when General Nathaniel Bedford Forrest comes knocking at her door. Her house is being taken as a field hospital. Her town of Franklin is now a battlefield.

All throughout town men are falling, wounded or dead. Carrie’s plantation has now become a field of the battle scarred. Four generals lie dead on her porch and the pile of limbs grows taller and taller. One soldier taken to Carrie’s plantation is Zachariah Cashwell, a Confederate soldier from Arkansas. Cashwell was struck with a bullet in the leg when he attempted to raise the colors. He’s in tough shape- he needs his leg amputated but would rather die.

What ensues between Carrie and Zachariah was recently named by Amazon as one of the Top 50 Love Stories. Initially angered at Carrie’s interference in the amputating of his leg, Zachariah grows to love Carrie. Theirs is a relationship that will never be anything more, they care deeply for each other.

While I enjoyed Zachariah and Carrie’s friendship- really what I found the “love” story to be- what I enjoyed the most was the telling of the battle of Franklin and Carrie’s quest to honor the men and boys who fought and died there. Too much time was spent on matters that were not pertinent to the heart of the story, which was Carrie and the cemetery.

Based on the true story of Carrie McGavock and Carnton plantation, McGavock’s backyard became the final resting place for 1,500 Confederate soldiers. She was known for her meticulous care and keeping of the cemetery, which she tended until her death some 50 years later.

I listened to this book, which was a full cast audio, switching between the voice of Zachariah and Carrie, as well as a narrator. The readers were just OK in my opinion- the woman who read for Carrie sounded much older than her 35 years.

Hicks, to me, what at his best and most passionate in his Author’s Note, when he told the story of Carrie and her cemetery. Hicks had worked for many years as the driving force behind the preservation of the Carnton Plantation, and he was intimately acquainted with the property and those who lived there. I wished the rest of the story could have been so eloquently told as his Author’s Note.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: March by E. L. Doctorow

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March by E. L. Doctorow

This month’s selection for “When Johnny Comes Marching Home: A Civil War Book  Discussion” was March by E. L. Doctorow, not to be confused with Geraldine Brooks’ March.

I selected this book because of the accolades it has received: Pen/Faulkner Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. It was also a New York Times Bestseller. I had given the audiobook version to my husband to listen to, and he could not get past the first three discs. This did not bode well for my own listening of this book.

March tells the story of Sherman’s imfamous march through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina during 1864 and into 1865. There is a rather large, colorful, and diverse cast of characters, led by William Tecumsah Sherman himself. Doctorow does an excellent job incorporating people from all “walks of life” into this story: freed slaves, Southern women, Confederate and Union soldiers, and even a British journalist. However, there were almost too many characters. At some point I lost track of who was where when and what happened to them. Some people stayed behind on different parts of the march and we never heard from them again. After a time, you wondered, “Hey, what happened to…?” and you never found out.

This book is not for the queasy or faint at heart, as there are graphic war scenes, including mass rape, killing of prisoners of war, drowning of freed slaves, and the burning of entire cities. If you’re expecting a nice, wholesome story, you won’t find it here. This is a realistic account of what actually happened during Sherman’s march to the sea. You’ll learn a lot and gain insight into a much maligned man.

Whether you love or hate Sherman and can or can’t justify his actions during the Civil War, one has to admit that he greatly helped end the Civil War and saved thousands of lives who would have been lost if the war had continued. March shows a softer side of Sherman, a man who, while following orders, often found himself at the mercy of his men, who got carried away with the spoils of war.

While I found this book to be interesting and the reader, Joe Morton, engaging, I did not love it. The language and style were easy to read and understand. I’m not sure what Doctorow could have done to take my rating from an “ok” to “great”.

Rating: 3 stars

New Book Club: When Johnny Comes Marching Home

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The March by E. L. Doctorow

Book clubs, to me, offer a great opportunity for people who are already interested or want to learn more about a particular genre or topic. I’m constantly amazed at the breadth of knowledge some of my members bring to book discussions. Learning from each other allows us to form, or even change, our own opinions.

I am pleased to offer “When Johnny Comes Marching Home: A Civil War Book Discussion” starting on Monday April 1st, in honor of the ongoing 150th anniversary of the American Civil War. When I ran this book group in spring 2011, I was pleased at the interest and enthusiasm of those who attended. I am offering it again as part of my spring 2013 Civil War programming. The April 1st meeting will kick-off the spring events.

Unlike last time, we will be reading fiction exclusively. While there is a plethora of excellent n0nfiction titles on the Civil War, I previously found members had a difficult time completing the books and even getting into them. We are lucky that the Civil War still inspires fiction authors to write splendid works that will provide much conversation.

Our schedule for this “mini” book group is:

  • April 1st, 7PM: March by E. L. Doctorow
  • May 6th, 7PM: Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
  • June 3rd, 7PM: Rebel by Bernard Cornwell
  • July 1st, 7PM: Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara

Copies of these books are available in our lobby for checkout. I look forward to seeing you and discussing one of my favorite topics!