Books
2:37 pm
Mon March 15, 2010

"The Road from Chapel Hill" and "Child of the South" by Joanna Catherine Scott

Joanna Catherine Scott would seem an unlikely person to write Civil War books set in the old South. She was born in London in 1943 during an air raid and raised in Australia. In Perth, Western Australia, Scott met a visiting PhD student from Duke and returned with him to North Carolina. She has written a shelf of books, poetry, fiction and nonfiction, but this pair of novels is her first work set around the Civil War.

Joanna Catherine Scott would seem an unlikely person to write Civil War books set in the old South. She was born in London in 1943 during an air raid and raised in Australia. In Perth, Western Australia, Scott met a visiting PhD student from Duke and returned with him to North Carolina. She has written a shelf of books, poetry, fiction and nonfiction, but this pair of novels is her first work set around the Civil War.

Obviously, these novels are not genealogy-driven. Scott has no ancestors who fell in Pickett's Charge. This is probably a good thing. They are, however, meticulously researched and intelligent and they are page turners in the tradition of "Gone With the Wind."

The first, "The Road from Chapel Hill," opens in 1860 in North Carolina. Scott will tell her story through three characters whose lives intersect over the next ten years. Clyde Brickett is a poor white boy, illiterate, who dreams of growing up to become a patroller and slave catcher.

Tom is a slave who escapes, is captured, and, since he is seen as a troublemaker, is sold off to work in the gold mines in Gold Hill, North Carolina. This is the first of a number of fresh subjects in these books. I did not know there was gold mining in North Carolina. Scott describes the mines with all their exhausting labor and brutal dangers.

Eugenia Spotswood is a young, pretty, white woman of Wilmington whose mother is dead and whose father goes bankrupt. The Spotswoods also move to Gold Hill, where father goes to work for the gold mining company.

With the start of the war, and her father dead, Eugenia moves back to Wilmington. There she becomes, almost by accident, a member of the Red String Society, a secret society of Unionists who, before the war, wore a red string in their lapels to identify one another. During the war, they go completely underground and serve in the way that the French Resistance served downed American and British airmen during WWII. They have secret safe houses, an underground railroad to get Union soldiers caught behind enemy lines back to their own outfits. And they operate secret hospitals, for healing wounded men before sending them north.

Some of the men they help escape north are Confederate deserters, of whom, it seems , there were many, with North Carolina leading the Confederacy in the rate of desertion. One would expect this in the mountains, where there was little slavery, but apparently it was statewide.

Also at Wilmington is a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp, not Andersonville, but even worse. The description of conditions there, especially in winter, is heartbreaking. One might excuse the Confederate guards, because they had little food or clothing to give. The Union prisoners under intense stress go completely feral, devolving into animals preying on one another 24 hours a day. Clyde Brickett, having almost accidentally joined the Union Army, gets captured, finds himself in the camp, and, in desperation, manages to escape.

Scott's second novel, "Child of the South," continues the story of the three characters during the Reconstruction, and adds a charismatic black leader, Abraham Galloway, who is, for a while, in the North Carolina Senate. Clyde and Tom put their racial animosities behind them and cooperate as folks should. Eugenia discovers that her own racial situation is much more complicated than she had thought. Readers of Robert Penn Warren's "Band of Angels" will recognize this motif.

Of most interest in this novel is the ferocity of the white resistance to emancipation. Ex-slaves are rounded up and put back into forced labor. Black leaders and any moderate whites are threatened and sometimes assassinated.

These two cleverly plotted novels, taken together, make an enjoyable, satisfying read. Scott tells a good story and raises some issues that are fresh and new.

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