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Gritty Realism Of Civil War In "Neverhome"

March 10, 2017
Constance and Bartholomew Thompson enjoy a nice life on their little Iowa farm. Then, one day, Constance puts on men's clothes, binds her breasts, changes her name to Ash, and marches off to fight for the Union in the Civil War.

In "Neverhome," Laird Hunt writes a story about Constance. She's the polar opposite of her gentle husband who wooed her with zinnias, but was not the type to fight a war. Constance, however, bears the demeanor of her deceased mother who backed down from no fight.

As she says, "he was made out of wool and I was made out of wire."

While marching to war with a group of soldiers, she spies a girl in a tree whose blouse had been ripped open. With the soldiers yelling with glee, Constance climbs the tree and covers the girl. This chivalrous act earns her the name of "Gallant Ash."

She is confrontational, a better shot than most of the men, and gains their respect with her unassuming manner.

Not being close to the fighting at first, the company digs ditches and bivouacs, and hunts for food. Then, one night, when she is on guard duty, a group of Confederates attack. Her companions' muskets do not fire, but hers does and she kills her first man.

"He had curly dark hair and a little beard. His mouth was large and his cheekbones high. The ball had hit him just above his left breast. You could see a kind of brown bloom coming up through his light coat. He had a filthy old dressing on his left hand and fingernails that could have used a trim," Hunt writes.

As Ash sits beside him in the dark, she thinks of her mother.

"Did you see that, Mother?" I whispered.

"I saw it," she whispered back.

"When the sun was up sufficient I saw that the dead man's open eyes were blue."

Hunt follows Ash throughout the war, detailing her battles with gritty realism, as well as her longing for her husband to whom she writes, describing the horrors with stark prose: "Death was the underclothing we all wore."

Finally, the horrors of war fall down on her and she decides to make her way home.

When she is accused of being a spy, she is sent to a jail/madhouse where, after days of interrogation, she begins having visions and slips back and forth into consciousness.

In trying to write in a woman's voice who is attempting to be a man, Hunt seems to slip at times, into an androgynous tone.

Readers can guess that her reason for joining the Union forces has something to do with her mother. That is not made clear until the end of the book, and even then, I was left shaking my head.

Hunt writes a book that captures the futility of war, both sides fighting for a purpose they consider noble, and seeing those dreams die in a blood-soaked cornfield.

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