Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reading Roundup: Historical Southern Fiction


Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South hits close to home, geographically speaking. Set in 1864 near the end of the Civil War, this novel takes one small part of that four year conflict and tells a detailed story of one town, one family, and how they were affected by the most bitter conflict in US history.

The Battle of Franklin was one of the most disastrous conflicts for the Confederacy, resulting in thousands of casualties from just one day of fighting. Carnton Plantation (a real place near Nashville that happens to be a beautiful modern-day wedding venue!) was right in the middle of the battle and taken over by troops as a field hospital to tend to the injured and dying. In Hicks’ story, Carrie McGavock (also a real person) is forced to face the horrors of the war as they literally arrive on her doorstep. As she works with the soldiers and sees the effects of the war firsthand, she finds the strength and passion to stand up for the individual lives that war so caustically simplifies as mere numbers.

This book was partly fascinating just because its setting is one that’s very familiar. And contrary to what you may believe, local Civil War battles are not something we learned in school—so I knew very little about the historic events around which this novel takes place! It’s also fascinating that much of this story, though fiction, is based on real people and places. Hicks clearly thoroughly researched the time and place and created a very detailed account of the affects of this war. That being said, this is a long book, and I thought it dragged in several places. When I say Hicks was detailed, I mean it. I finished with a better opinion of this book than I had during reading it, which is a rare sentiment, but I was left inspired to further investigate the real story on my own. Also, my mom and sister both loved this.

I last read Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns back in my 10th grade English class, and I remembered nothing more other than my mom also reading it and liking it. It was this memory that inspired me to pick it up again and read it as a grown-up.

Cold Sassy, Georgia, is the type of small town where everybody knows everything about everybody else just about as soon as it happens. It’s summer 1906 and the talk of the town is how Will Blakeslee’s grandfather has up and married the young Miss Simpson less than a month after his beloved wife has been buried. Our fourteen-year-old narrator Will finds himself in the middle of the scandal, observing the reactions of the town and his family, and trying to see the subjective side of what’s happening around him.

For one, the time period of this story is really fun. It’s the turn of the century when modern luxuries are a conversation piece. Electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, automobiles—there’s an excitement in the air about what’s coming next. As a narrator, Will is fascinating to read, because he’s old enough to understand that there’s always more than one way to read a story. He’s trying to view the world from an adult, unbiased perspective, and he gains an understanding that everyone has their own reasons for their actions. That’s a valuable lesson to learn. I’m glad I read Cold Sassy Tree again; it’s an enjoyable, humorous story with a lot of heart. Though, I can’t imagine it appealing to too many 10th graders—not provocative enough!

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