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I Shall Be Near to You    by Erin Lindsay McCabe order for
I Shall Be Near to You
by Erin Lindsay McCabe
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2014 (2014)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I Shall Be Near to You, an exceptional debut novel by Erin Lindsay McCabe, is a Civil War story but with a big difference. Apparently, more than 250 women fought (on both sides) in the American Civil War, disguised as men. McCabe tells the story of one strong-minded farm girl. Rosetta follows her childhood sweetheart, then husband Jeremiah, into battle after he enlists.

The story opens in early 1862 near Flat Creek, New York, when Rosetta realizes that Jeremiah and his friends plan to join up. Rosetta tells us, 'It makes me so mad I could kick shins'. The local community already know the cost of war as young Mrs. Waite's husband died at Bull Run, leaving her with a new baby. When Jeremiah tells Rosetta that his enlistment will fund the Nebraska farm that is their dream, she demands that he at least marry her first. So he does.

Young Rosetta is a tomboy who'd much rather help her father with farm work than sew and mend with her mother and sister Betsy. Unfortunately, Jeremiah's mother has the same expectations of her new daughter-in-law's behavior as her own Mama did. But at least she has some time with Jeremiah in their own small cabin before he sets off for war. He leaves his new wife a map, on which he's written in the Nebraska Territory, 'I shall always be near to you.'

Rosetta misses her husband. 'And then like a hornets' nest in the hot dust that you almost don't see until it's too late, but once you have, you can't not see it for the buzzing in and out of the crack in the dirt crust, the idea of it just comes to me.' She cuts her hair, dons Jeremiah's old trousers and sets off, planning to earn a soldier's pay and be with the husband she loves 'for as long as this war drags on.'

No-one expects it to drag on for long. Rosetta does find Jeremiah and his friends, and persuades them to let her join them. She cooks for them and befriends a sensitive young soldier named Will. They don't see any action for some time. There's just training and long marches. Rosetta helps Captain Chalmers' wife (who guesses her secret) with hospital duties in Washington, and is shocked by what she sees and hears.

Rosetta also is assigned to help guard Secesh prisoners at the Old Capitol Prison and feels sympathy for a lady spy there, Mrs. Greenhow - though on the other side, she's also playing her part in the war. There are letters to and from home (the latter disapproving ones). Will learns and keeps Rosetta's secret as she keeps his. And then they start to see real action and young men and women start to die.

Erin Lindsay McCabe portrays all this with such empathy and credible detail that it feels like you are there alongside these youngsters, sharing their initial naiveté and growing awareness of what they have got themselves into. An Author's Note at the end of the novel tells of 'a real Rosetta who fought in the Civil War' and whose 'feisty and strong-willed' letters home helped in the creation of the fictional heroine. Don't miss I Shall Be Near to You - very highly recommended!

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