Killer Angels in early June right before visiting Gettysburg. Two years ago, I filled July and August with Uncle Tom's Cabin. And then last year, I spent a good chunk of the summer reading Gone With the Wind. Are you seeing where I'm going with this? Probably not, because I think it's just my own weird brain that has somehow linked together the Civil War and the heat of the summer. (Okay, so Uncle Tom's Cabin is not actually set during the Civil War, being written before it began, but Abraham Lincoln supposedly called Harriet Beecher Stowe "the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war," so close enough.)
I've realized for a long time that I have a slight obsession with reading books at the appropriate time of year (hence, the Reading With the Seasons series), but I had no idea that I'd carried it so far as to impose certain seasons onto periods in history. Obviously, the Civil War was not restricted to just the summer months, but now when I think of the Civil War (which is not that often, I assure you), I always picture green forests and humid heat.
I very well might have broken this strange tradition if not for my friend, Sarah, who gave me a copy of Beyond the Wood at the very beginning of summer. Call it fate or coincidence or lucky, but there I was with a book set during the Civil War just thrust upon me, and what else was I supposed to do but read it? (That was frightfully perceptive of you, Sarah.)
The story begins in present day Virginia as a young man named Reid makes his way to a Civil War battle site. It is a journey he promised his late father he would make. One of their ancestors, Henry Gragg, fought in the war, but Reid knows very little about him. Luckily (or miraculously?), when he arrives at the battlefield, there is a young woman who knows, quite intimately it would seem, the story of Henry "Hank" Gragg.
Hank was born in Virginia, but when the Civil War broke out, he signed up with the Union. A couple of years before, he had been refused by the love of his life, Betsy. In angry embarrassment and grief, Hank had abruptly left home and moved to Indiana where he later joined the army. After his first battle, he accidentally crossed paths with a dying Confederate soldier who begged Hank to take a letter to his wife. Hank agreed and soon found himself facing danger, friendship, grief, and hope as he strove to keep a promise and find the love and acceptance he so desperately wanted.
While I love historical fiction, I'm not a huge fan of war details (which often presents a problem since so many novels are set during periods of war). When Mike heard that I was looking for a complete series to read this year, he suggested Jeff Shaara's World War II series (The Rising Tide, etc.). Yeah, right. Not unless I want to impose agony on myself. (Although, in all fairness, I quite liked the aforementioned Killer Angels, which focuses completely on the Battle of Gettysburg, but it was a slow read for me.) It's not the violence itself that bothers me (usually) but rather all the details and descriptions and strategies and layouts and geography that I just can't seem to keep track of or make myself care about.
So I was somewhat wary going into this novel, particularly because it started right off the bat with a battle. But it turned out to have just the right balance (for me) between battle descriptions and emotional character development. The battles that were described drove the plot forward and had a definite purpose beyond just a lot of gratuitous violence.
Rather than war details, the balance tipped heavily in favor of romance and suspense/drama outside the war. The romance is a bit on the cheesy/unbelievable side--Hank becomes completely consumed with imagining a romance between himself and the widow of the Confederate soldier; he has a few letters from her on which to base his attachment, and even goes so far as to say at one point that "topping the list as his most important reason for living was the woman." What? An imagined romance was more important than his very real family?
I'm not saying I didn't like the romance (quite the contrary...it was one of the main reasons I wanted to keep reading), and I actually left out some important details that give a little more depth to the whole relationship, but I will admit that there were times when I thought, Really, Hank? Are you that desperate?
I mentioned that the book begins in present day Virginia. And except for this beginning prologue, a few pages in the middle, and two pages at the very end, most of the book is set firmly in 1862-64. Because of that, I really would have preferred not to have Reid's story at all. The reader is told that Reid has been unsettled for many years: "He had done poorly in school, lost a couple of jobs, failed in romance." I felt like the prologue set up the reader to really experience this story through Reid's eyes. I thought I would get to see how the story changed him and helped him. I was expecting some more back story so I could fully understand why it was so vital that he visit this place.
But none of that happened. It didn't feel like Hank's story was being narrated by anyone in particular...certainly not the woman Reid meets in Virginia who is supposedly telling the story. And even though Reid is moved and touched by the details, the reader never gets well-enough acquainted with him to really care. I think Reid's story was supposed to bridge the years and connect the generations and give modern relevance to the Civil War, but instead it felt out of place. For my taste, there either needed to be more or none at all.
But where the novel really fell short for me was with the ending. I felt like everything was set up so well but then just left unfinished. I realize that there is going to be a sequel to this book, but if the final scene was purposely left vague to act like a cliffhanger, it had the opposite effect on me. It doesn't seem likely that the author will pick up the next book exactly where this one left off, but even if he did, that final scene will not be the same coming at the beginning of the book rather than the end. There was a lot of suspense and foreshadowing leading up to it, but then it felt only half complete. The characters didn't finish their discussion; the scene just cut off, almost mid-sentence. What had so much potential to be a beautifully sweet and poignant moment instead felt awkward and inadequate. Maybe I'm just too much of a romantic.
The pages leading up to that final scene were also somewhat dissatisfying and disturbing. Hank's behavior confused me, there was almost no closure to a horrific scene, and justice was avoided. I liked the rest of the book so well, so to have the ending feel like it completely fell apart was very disappointing for me.
But if I forget about the ending, I can honestly say that I really liked this book. I loved the characters, especially Margaret and Naomi. One of my favorite scenes occurred when Margaret is faced with the decision to forgive or seek revenge. She spends much of the night struggling and battling within herself, and eventually she feels a deep and powerful peace. I thought that process was beautifully described...it felt both familiar and empowering.
In spite of its 500+ pages, the story had plenty of drama and excitement to keep the pages slipping away. I wasn't ready for it to be over (obviously. see above), and I'm really looking forward to the next book. This book was printed through an independent publisher, so it's a little bit hard to get a hold of (if you rely heavily on library copies for most of your reading material, as I do). But if it sounds interesting to you, I would encourage you to buy a copy (not an affiliate link), or you're more than welcome to borrow my copy (provided I don't have to ship it to you...). The content is clean, so I can recommend it without reservation.
And now that I've read a Civil War novel in the summer for four years in a row, I think it's safe to say this has become an annual tradition for me. Now accepting suggestions for Summer 2014!