Saturday, May 09, 2015

476 (2015 #33). The Widow of the South

by Robert Hicks

This book has been on my TBR list for a while.  There really was a "Widow of the South," and she really was Carrie McGavock, a main character in this book.

Debut author Robert Hicks had been involved in the preservation of Carnton plantation and of Franklin, Tennessee, the settings for this novel.  Carnton, the home of Carrie and her husband John, was the site of a Confederate field hospital during the Battle of Franklin on November 30, 1864.

The novel begins in 1894 with Carrie and her former slave, Mariah, walking through the cemetery at Carnton where nearly 1,500 battle casualties are buried.  Then she is approached by an old soldier she knows.

The story then moves back 30 years to the day of the battle.  Hicks excels at describing the setting, as well as the battle from the point of view of individuals participating in it or witnessing it.  This is "Book I" in the text, and it takes up about 100 pages.

"Book II" is the immediate aftermath of the battle, when Carnton serves as a field hospital.  Carrie has been in a depressed state for a number of years over the deaths of three of her five young children, but serving as a nurse seems to snap her out of that.  She focuses in particular on one wounded soldier named Zachariah Cashwell (who is completely fictional), who has to have his leg amputated.  Inexplicably, they fall in love with each other, but Cashwell is ultimately taken away as a prisoner.

"Book III" takes place in 1865-66, and the last few pages of the book return to 1894.  The author's note at the end of the book is especially helpful in sorting out truth and fiction, and has photographs and paintings of Carrie, her husband and children, Mariah, Carnton, and the cemetery.

2005 article said Hicks "centered his book on a fictional relationship between McGavock and ... Cashwell because he knew little about the plantation mistress. He says that he didn't intentionally change McGavock's story, but at times he just didn't have all the facts to fully tell it."  While this is certainly understandable and acceptable, there were aspects of the relationship I did not find realistic.

Besides the McGavocks and Mariah, Hicks incorporated other real people into his story, such as Nathan Bedford Forrest (in the postwar years) as himself, and Tod Carter (aka "Mint Julep") as Will Baylor (aka "Cotton Gin").  The sentimental tale at the end of the novel about the grave of James Wilson Winn is apparently true.

All in all, I liked this novel, and it has sparked an interest in learning more about the McGavocks, Mariah, and Carter, as well as the Battle of Franklin, and visiting the sites mentioned in the book.

© Amanda Pape - 2015

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

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