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I Shall Be Near to You: A Novel Hardcover – January 28, 2014
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Essay by Erin Lindsay McCabe
It is July, 2009, and I've already written hundreds of pages. I am talking to my mom on the phone when she asks me.
“Why do you want to write about this?” she asks. “Why this person? Why not someone else?”
I give her my answer, the one I think I would give Oprah if Oprah asked me the same question, the one I would say to my mom’s book club if they asked.
“Because people should know about her,” I say. “Because people should know women did these things. Because I can’t believe no one gets taught this stuff. Because I think it’s important.”
I am not writing about Rosetta because of the things we know about Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. We know that she was born on January 16, 1843. We know that she was the oldest of nine children, that she was her father’s farmhand, that her family had financial trouble. We know that when she was 19 she decided to leave the family farm and find work so she could send money home. We know that she decided to dress as a man to get work on a canal boat and that it only took her one boat ride up the river to find out that being a soldier for the 153rd New York State Volunteers paid better than any job she could find: $13 a month plus a $152 signing bonus. But there's a lot we don't know.
March, 1998. I had gone into the stacks to find a woman, any woman, who lived in the 1800s. I was looking for a primary source on which to write my next paper for U.S. Women’s History. I wanted to find a diary, but what I found were Rosetta Wakeman's letters.
Rosetta told her family, “I have got So that I Can drill just as well as any man there is in my regiment.” She is both tender and brazen, writing in one letter, “I don’t know how long before i shall have to go into the field of battle. For my part i don’t Care. I don’t feel afraid to go. I don’t believe there are any Rebel’s bullets made for me yet. Nor i don’t Care if there is.” She can make us laugh with her directness. We know for sure she got into a fistfight with Pvt. Stephen Wiley, who was a drunk and a thief. She “give him three or four pretty good cracks and he put downstairs with himself.” She loved her family, sent home all the money she could spare, and had dreams she could never fulfill as a woman. “If I ever own a farm, It will be in Wisconsin. On the prairie,” she wrote. She tells us she was “independent as a hog on ice,” and that she had no intention of giving in to anyone else’s ideas of how she should behave, saying, “I will Dress as I am a mind to for all anyone else cares, and if they don’t let me Alone they will be sorry for it.”
Rosetta was not an anomaly. In fact, there were a lot of women like her. At least two hundred women are documented as having fought on both sides of the Civil War. Even Rosetta knew they existed, writing:
“Over to Carroll Prison they have got three women that is Confined to their Rooms. One of them was a Major in the union army and she went into battle with her men. When the Rebels bullets was acoming like a hail storm she rode her horse and gave orders to her men. Now She is in prison for not doing aCcordingly to the regulation of war. The other two is rebel Spies and they have Catch them and Put them in Prison.”
Who were those women? Rosetta doesn’t say. History doesn’t either, because the records from Carroll Prison are incomplete.
There are a lot of things I love about Rosetta that didn’t make it into that college paper, but they made it into my novel. And there are a lot of things she didn't tell us: How it felt to be a woman dressed as a man. Whether or not she ever killed anyone in battle. What it was like to march into combat, all the way down to Louisiana, and to never once get found out for being a woman in the two years she served. How she did it, how she did all this, while pretending to be a man.
I imagined answers to the things we can't know, adding tidbits from the tales of other women who fought. Then, with Rosetta’s voice in my head, I tried to introduce a woman like her to the world, envisioning what someone in her position might have experienced, giving her a fictionalized life, a fictionalized husband, and a fictionalized story. But here, I'll leave you with Rosetta's own words:
“The weather is cold and the ground is froze hard, but I sleep as warm in the tents as I would in a good bed. I don't know the difference when I get asleep. We have boards laid down for a floor and our dishes is tin. We all have a tin plate and a tin cup, and a knife and Fork, one spoon. We have to use the floor for a table. I like to be a soldier very well.”
*Starred Review* A girl as tough as Katniss Everdeen. A romance out of Twilight. A historical backdrop as strong as Cold Mountain. These things combine in the extraordinary story of Rosetta Wakefield, a young woman from rural New York who follows her childhood sweetheart, Jeremiah, into the Civil War. Rosetta grows up preferring to haul hay with her father over mending socks with her mother and sister. Often teased for her tomboy ways, Rosetta has a constant defender in Jeremiah—and eventually a lover and husband. When he enlists in the Union army to earn money for their future, she finds she can’t sit at home, bearing the hostility of her new mother-in-law and the oppressive domesticity. Dressing in men’s clothes, she takes the name of Ross Stone and enlists. Together the two young people face the everyday challenges of army life—cold nights, drunk tent mates, uncertainty—and the horrors of war, culminating in the terrible battle of Antietam. Author McCabe makes every sentence count, with a narrative full of authentic dialogue, historical realism, and great feeling. Loosely based on true events, including the letters of the more than 200 women who are known to have served as men in the Civil War. --Lynn Weber
Top customer reviews
I won’t repeat the synopsis – it’s very accurately described. But I will say that it could not have been articulated any stronger or more beautifully than how McCabe has written. The book is written in first person, complete with dialect, which added to the complete feel of the story. Rosetta is made of tough stuff, but you begin to realize she is as fragile as any human being. Rosetta is an “every day” woman, but portrayed with an inner strength that is enviable and remarkable. Although how Rosetta views life and how she wants to live contrasts from what she thinks is expected of her, her fears, desires, and wishes are no different from her sisterly counterparts. She loves her husband and he loves her. They want to make a life together. The tragedy that was the Civil War forces them to take unimaginable risks just to stay together and to stay alive. There was no easy answer to their dilemma.
For those reviewers who describe this as a romance - I read historical romance almost exclusively, and this was a complete 180 from that genre, for me. There is love between a couple, but nothing that would be construed as sensuous or titillating, nor is the focus on a romantic theme. Far from it.
I never realized how many women actually fought in the Civil War, and the price they paid, both in lives and in reputation. What an incredible legacy. This book is worth the read for the history lesson alone. But it is also so inspirational in its depiction of strength and resolve when faced with no choice but poor choices. One cannot read this book and not be affected. This will forever be one of my most memorable reads.
written and period appropriate that it was easy to be transported back to the Civil
War. Rosetta was a well developed character and I foundit was easy to be swept into
her life during the late 1800's. I appreciated the Author's Note describing how the book
was created through letters, pictures, fact and fiction. I love this genre.
I judge a book by how much I want to read it often letting other things slide as much
as I can during the day. I read this over the weekend and loved every minute of it.
The pace was good and the ending believable and heartbreaking all at the same time.
I recommend it most highly!
This author does an incredible job of character descriptions, training and battlefield sites while employing the young woman's thoughts, visions in the speech of an undereducated, farm girl. I felt it! The human carnage is intricately painted and the fear, desolation and sense of loss real.
This is one history lesson I won't forget, and I highly recommend this book to readers of women's books, historical novels and history buffs. Outstanding!