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This Scorched Earth: A Novel of the Civil War    by William Gear order for
This Scorched Earth
by William Gear
Order:  USA  Can
Forge, 2018 (2018)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I would not call This Scorched Earth 'A Novel of the Civil War' but rather 'THE Novel of the Civil War'. It follows the fortunes (or rather misfortunes) of different members of an Arkansas family as their lives disintegrate during the U.S. Civil War. Each has hopes and dreams that are annihilated by what happens to them in wartime. Each story is unique, credible and haunting.

It opens in 1861, with newly minted Dr. Philip Hancock making his way south from Boston where he attended medical school. Philip was estranged from his scoundrel of a father and out of touch with his family. We watch him take on work where he could (mainly in brothels) until he reaches Memphis. There he works with Dr. Morton, and falls hard for Ann Marie, the lovely daughter of the family. When war starts, she persuades him to sign up, in order to watch over her brother James. The war will be over soon anyway and he'll earn what he needs to set up his own practice.

In Arkansas, we meet wild, young Billy Hancock, a skilled hunter, whose feelings for his beautiful elder sister Sarah are a touch excessive. He plans to continue his outdoor life, while fending off his sister's many admirers. Sarah has plans too, to find a rich and powerful husband in Little Rock when her Paw takes her there the next year. Butler, the intellectual of the family (he quotes Homer), has returned home from his studies in Philadelphia. Hearing that Arkansas has seceded, and despite the family's not supporting slavery, Paw announces he will take a commission in the state's military.

Soon, Butler feels obliged to do his part as well and initially works as a staff officer to Colonel Hindman. As this develops, the war washes back and forth across the family homestead, and the womenfolk send Billy to a hidden cabin, afraid that he will be forced to enlist, despite his youth. Though Maw declares that 'Federals or Rebels, they're not going to bother women', that changes as the war progresses, sending Sarah and Billy on separate paths. Meanwhile Philip ends up in a hellhole of a prison camp, while Butler's mind is badly wounded by the loss of his men in battle.

After such trauma, there cannot be easy, happy endings, but the siblings - after long trials and tribulations - do eventually cross paths once more, and each achieves a kind of peace with their past. Don't miss This Scorched Earth, for the gripping Hancock stories intertwined throughout, but also for thought-provoking analysis of the Civil War. One comment I found especially fascinating was Philip's on how the war might have been avoided ... 'Let the South go. The market for Confederate cotton is in Europe and New England where slavery is despised and revolution and human rights in the air.' He argues that slavery would have died a natural death.

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