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Jacob's Ladder: A Story of Virginia During the War Paperback – May 1, 1999


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (May 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140282653
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140282658
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,195,394 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

This book was purchased because of a book club and it was the book of the month.
William G. Vermeer
Anyone with an interest in the Civil War or historical fiction will find this book a very satisfying read.
Elizabeth Clare
The prose is crisp, the characters are wholly believable, and the setting is vivid.
C. Fergus

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

49 of 50 people found the following review helpful By John D. Costanzo on June 5, 2001
Format: Paperback
This epic civil war novel follows the lives of a southern plantation, from just before the war until the end at Appomattox. McCaig gives us several viewpoints, from slaves and slaveholders to the soldiers fighting the war. I was reminded of Gone With the Wind, Roots, and Glory at various times during the novel. As you would expect in a civil war novel, there are plenty of gory battle scenes.
It was a very good, though not the most original, telling of the civil war period. But McCaig makes up for the lack of originality with a strong narrative and some really memorable characters. You will be left with a good sense of what it was like during the darkest period in American history. I give this a strong recommendation for those who enjoy historical fiction, and especially those who enjoy civil war novels.
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23 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Elizabeth Clare on August 1, 2006
Format: Paperback
Dickensian in scope, this book follows the inhabitants of a Virginia plantation called Stratford, both white and black, as the existence they've always known is shattered forever by the coming of the war. In the course of the novel, every character is tested beyond anything they could have ever imagined. Some manage to make choices that leave them with honor, love, and freedom; others fall by the wayside.

The book begins in 1859 with the youthful love affair between Duncan Gatewood, the young son of the Stratford's owner, and Midge, a pretty little slave who works in the house. The consequences of Duncan and Midge's affair explode when Midge gives birth to Duncan's son, Jacob, and Duncan wants to acknowledge the child as his own. But anything that the impulsive pair might have done is derailed by the coming of the war.

What happens to Duncan after he joins the Confederate Army and Midge after she is sold away from Stratford are just two of the threads that make up the absorbing tapestry of Jacob's Ladder. Some of the other intriguing characters are Sallie Kirkpatrick, a young girl who becomes a woman in the brutal military hospitals of Richmond; her husband Alexander, a vain schoolmaster who drifts from one disaster to the next; Jesse Burns, who runs away from Stratford and seeks pride and a new future as one of the Union's colored troops; and Catesby Byrd, who only wanted to be a comfortable country lawyer but finds his intelligence and sensitivity mauled in some of the war's most horrific battles.

A puzzling and pointless framing device involving a 1930s WPA slave narrative could have been easily dispensed with, and as with any multi-character saga, some of the storylines are more satisfying than others. But these are minor criticisms.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 14, 1998
Format: Hardcover
I read Donald McCaig's wonderful new book two months ago and waited for the rest of the world to discover it too. What gives? Here is a complex, seamless and beautifully written book that neither glosses over the social inequities of the time nor attempts to judge 19th century thoughts and actions with a 20th-century hoity-toity political correctness. Not only that, it's a heck of a story. Anyone who likes a good read should like this book. Anyone who's interested in the Civil War and wants a heart-in-your-throat, immediate sense of the horrific Virginia battles should like this book. Don't get me wrong, I loved "Cold Mountain." But it mainly a love story, with nature as a subplot and the Civil War only as a backdrop. "Jacob's Ladder" is mainly about the war, as seen through the eyes of some endearing and deftly drawn characters. Why is this book missing the public bandwagon? I'm glad I sneaked into the select group who heard about it early and read it right away.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 10, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Not since Shaara's "The Killer Angels" has anyone written a novel so expressive of the passion and agony wrapped up in this terrible war. McCaig's memorable characters weave a tight and authentic story of love and honor and compassion that does more to express humankind's for familial relationship than any book I've ever read. Here is a genuine story of race relations. Plus, the novel is absolutely true to its setting: McCaig knows Virginia and Virginians like a native.
Monty S. Leitch Pilot, VA
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 1, 2002
Format: Paperback
I picked up this book by chance at a secondhand bookstore, and found it an extremely satisfying reading experience. There are books that you read that are merely good, and books from the first page that are great in comparison. This is one of the great ones. The author's style is unique and original, the story engrossing to the end. What the characters have to say is so authentic, if one can be a judge of that without having direct experience of the 19th century. I bought this book in part because I still carried the memory of having read "Cold Mountain" and wanted to, in a sense, extend that reading experience, and I would recommend "Jacob's Ladder" over "Cold Mountain" any day. This is one of the rare books that I am looking forward to rereading some day.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Terry Banen on September 3, 1999
Format: Hardcover
What a disappointment. After reading the reviews above I expected so much more. The characters are poorly developed and the dialogue is strained at best. I give this book two stars because of historical research and the battle scenes are well done. Perhaps the author should try nonfiction. For an outstanding insight into the "psyche" of the pre-civil slave; try William Styrons incomprable "The Confessions of Nat Turner." Give Jacob's Ladder a miss and wait for Blair Underwood in the TV version instead.
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