The Widow of the South

Sep 4, 2005

Gone With the Wind meets War and Peace in this meticulously-researched novel.

The Widow of the South

The Widow of the South, a first novel, arrives as the most heavily touted novel of the Fall.

The press package alone is a couple of hours of reading. Warner Books has made Widow their number-one focus, with a $500,000 ad campaign, and at least seven book clubs have chosen Widow as a selection or alternate.

This book is a big deal.

But is it a good book?

Happily for Warner, the answer is yes. The Widow of the South is an engrossing story, well told, a real page-turner with some substance as well. An epic told in many voices, it is part Gone with the Wind, part War and Peace.

The novel, based on real events and people, opens in 1894 in the cemetery adjacent to Carnton, a plantation house near Franklin, Tennessee.

Carrie McGavock is tending the 1,500 graves which are right by her house, accompanied by Mariah, her black friend and former possession.

Mariah is something of a conjure woman and has visions, a kind of second sight, and she can tell Carrie something about the soldiers from Alabama, Tennessee, Missouri and Arkansas who are buried there.

Since 1864, Carrie has been tending the graves and writing letters to the dead boys? families, and she has become the representative mourning mother for the Confederacy, at least for those slain in the Battle of Franklin.

And what a battle that was.

The Union Army marched north ahead of the Army of Tennessee, got behind the fortifications at Franklin, and, on November 30, 1864, the Rebels charged.

They charged bravely and hopelessly across two miles of open ground, uphill into devastating fire, and 6,700 Southerners fell in one day.

The charge was twice the size of Pickett?s at Gettysburg, with even worse results. Apparently not much had been learned in Pennsylvania.

Not much was learned at Franklin, either, because during the night of the 30th the Union Army slipped away north to Nashville, the Army of Tennessee followed, and a few days later bled itself to death in Nashville, too.

Less than four months later was Appomattox. Why generals continued to think a massed infantry assault was a good idea beats me, but since everybody was still doing it in France in WWI, there must be something very attractive about it.

In any case, many of the wounded at Franklin were brought to Carnton to be tended to, and most of them died, including generals. At one time, four Confederate generals? bodies were laid out side by side on the back porch. Some men survived, despite their wounds and surgeries.

In this story, one of these is the fictional Sergeant Zachariah Cashwell. Carrie, morbidly depressed over the deaths of her three children, saves his life, and then, through hours of actually not boring conversation on the meaning of death and life, he saves hers.

He had thought that he didn?t care if he died. But he, and then she, both come to understand that they really want to live.

Carrie is a married woman, and resists adultery, but a very powerful bond develops between her and Cashwell, really one of the more interesting love stories in print recently.

These last battles of the Civil War in the ?west? have been treated recently by two Alabama writers: Winston Groom followed the campaign of General Hood in Shrouds of Glory, and Madison Jones fictionalized the Battle of Nashville in Nashville, 1864: The Dying of the Light, but neither spends a lot of time on Franklin.

Robert Hicks, a meticulous researcher, takes liberties, it is true.

There are real characters in this historical novel and invented ones. A good deal of the military action is part of the record, but obviously much of the personal narrative is not.

The Widow of the South will not replace Gone with the Wind for devotees of Civil War writing, but I think it will sit on the same shelf.