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The Widow of the South    by Robert Hicks order for
Widow of the South
by Robert Hicks
Order:  USA  Can
Warner, 2005 (2005)
Hardcover, CD

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

This is a story that begged to be written, based as it is on real historical events, of which most of us were previously unaware. The Battle of Franklin occurred on November 30, 1864. 9,200 men died. Hicks tells us that 'Many consider the battle to be the bloodiest five hours of the Civil War.' The town of 2,500 men and women had to cope with the aftermath, and the Carnton 'Big House' played a central role as a hospital. This is the story of its mistress, Carrie McGavock, The Widow of the South, who tended both the dead and orphans of war long after it was over.

What I especially liked about the novel is that Robert Hicks tells it from many points of view - soldiers on both sides, those who lived and those who died, their families, and his central characters at Carnton. These are not deep characterizations - we see events through their eyes and share fleeting impressions, rather than getting to know them well. Indeed, this kind of portrayal of protagonist Carrie McGavock did not work well for me - I felt that we should know at least this woman better. We see her initially sunk in a long-standing depression over the deaths of three of her children, despite the fact that she still has two small ones surviving. The battle's aftermath shocks her out of it, and she's just as stubborn in coping with the flotsam of war as she was in holding on to her grief - she tells us that 'although the burden seemed larger, I was similarly enlarged by the burden of shouldering it.'

One of the soldiers who ends up at Carnton is Sergeant Zachariah Cashwell, whose past life has left him little hope for a future. His wanting to die obsesses Carrie, who saves his life by having the surgeons take his leg. A mutual fascination gradually develops, one that changes them both in important ways. To her, 'he had lived for reasons other than propriety or position.' Other players include Carrie's close friend (once her slave but always her companion) Mariah; kind John McGavock, 'the husband of a woman who had no use for a husband'; young Becky who loved and lost; her dead love's wealthy, bitter father, Mr. Baylor; and Becky's younger brother Eli, the catalyst for lost romance. All come together in an elegant dance of cause and effect that brings Carrie and Zachariah together and apart, and leads to her expansion of her own family graveyard into a cemetery for 1500 Confederate soldiers.

Towards the end Carrie addresses Baylor passionately on behalf of the dead, telling him 'it was life and not death that those men, like this boy here, sought from this place' as she speaks of 'the strategies of men, powerful men, men not unlike yourself' who led them there. That, at least, never changes. Read The Widow of the South for a new perspective on the damage done by the Civil War - and by war in general.

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