From Publishers Weekly
Imagine a collaboration between Shelby Foote and Margaret Mitchell and you get some idea of the historical irony and passion that inform this fine literary novel, which captures the full sweep of the Civil War in Virginia. In 1934, a WPA writer interviewing 90-year-old Marguerite Omohundru, former Richmond bank president, uncovers the dark secrets of a prominent Virginia family. In 1857, 14-year-old Duncan Gatewood is disowned and sent off to VMI when his father, Samuel, discovers he has fallen in love with and impregnated Midge, a 13-year-old light-skinned slave. To prevent scandal, the girl and infant son, Jacob, are sold south by slave dealer Silas Omohundru, who eventually reclaims Midge from a Vicksburg brothel and marries her. But Midge (or Maggie) already has a black husband. When he runs away to look for her, the daughter of a neighboring white planter and her husband are sent to prison for giving him shelter. War breaks out, and these many oddly linked characters are flung apart and cross paths with various actual figures of the day. (This is the third book this season in which John Brown is a character: the others are Russell Banks's Cloudsplitter and Jane Smiley's The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton.) From the blockade-running at Wilmington and Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, they make their separate ways through the carnage. McCaig's (The Butte Polka) portrayal of this moment succeeds not only as a splendid piece of writing but also as a searching indictment of inhumanities that still haunt the American soul. BOMC, QPB and History Book Club selections. (Apr.) FYI: A Virginia sheep farmer as well as a novelist, McCaig occasionally writes on rural living for NPR.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus Reviews
A large, ambitious, carefully researched novel tracing the impact of the Civil War on a Virginia slave-owning family, their neighbors, and their slaveswith enough melodrama and subplots to fill several books. McCaig (Nop's Hope, 1994, etc.) notes that he set out to explore why Southerners were so eager to risk their ``lives, fortunes, and honor in such a forlorn struggle.'' While his portrait of the Gatewoods does suggest something of the complexity of forces that pushed the South into war, the exploration is soon lost in a welter of Gatewood adventures. Before marching off to war, Duncan, heir to the plantation, sees his mulatto lover and the son he's had with her sold down south by his outraged father. Later, he and his brother-in-law, Catesby Byrd, serving with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, are caught up in ferocious battles and are often witnesses to turning points in these engagements. Duncan, repeatedly wounded, eventually loses an arm. And the seemingly unrelenting Catesby is finally so overwhelmed by four years of slaughter that, after a particularly vicious clash in the Wilderness campaign, he commits suicide. Meanwhile, Duncan's former lover Maggie, having been sold to a bordello, is bought by a wealthy cotton-broker turned blockade-runner who marries her, successfully passing her off as white, and Jesse, a bright, determined Gatewood slave, flees the plantation and signs up with a black regiment. McCaig deftly weaves the adventures of these figures, as well as those of a variety of lesser characters (including bandits passing themselves off as Southern partisans, a schoolteacher turned outlaw, and a resolute young woman serving as a nurse for the Confederate Army), into a vivid, crowded narrative, ending with Lee's surrender. The battle sequences, and McCaig's feel for the specifics of 19th-century life and mores, are impressive. Too bad that the few Federals are ciphers, suggestive of the prevailing one-sidedness that holds this often powerful tale from an epic breadth and dilutes its impact. -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.