Sunday, May 31, 2015

Just Read: Neverhome, By Laird Hunt

Well-researched historical fiction about a woman fighting for the Union army during the American Civil War?

Yes, please.

"I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic."

Thus begins this gripping tale, told in the protagonist's unfussy, matter-of-fact, earthy voice. In completing his extensive research to write this novel, Laird Hunt reviewed the first person account of a woman who had disguised herself as a man so that she could join the ranks of soldiers and fight in the Civil War on the Union side. Although the protagonist in Neverhome is entirely fictional (and the story is cleverly structured around the narrative of The Odyssey), Mr. Hunt clearly went to pains to bring as much historical authenticity to his account as possible. Everything from the details of diet, the layout of roads and towns, forgotten turns of phrase, social conventions of the time, to historic battles and the worse details of the war that nearly tore our country apart forever resonate with time-shifting detail.

But this story runs much deeper than that. Behind the battles, the violence, and the gore, another story lies submerged like the outlines of a forgotten city beneath the waves. This story is much more sinister, and its violence ultimately eclipses the war altogether.

Neverhome is a fairly quick read, suggested by my book club partly for that reason (we'd had an unusually long run of unusually long books). Given my predilection for stories about strong women, I was thrilled to discover this book. Like its main character, the prose is unadorned and direct, yet subtle and layered. And I have to give a double thumbs up to Mr. Hunt for choosing to write this story from a woman's perspective. The main character could just as easily have been a man, but by making the protagonist a woman, additional themes and conflicts were available for the author to explore--and he does so deftly. Mr. Hunt also refrained from employing most of the usual cliches about strong women, which I was also happy to see.

One of the members of our book club posed an interesting question to the women readers about whether we thought the fact that the author was male affected how he told the protagonist's story; i.e., would a woman have written it any differently. It was an interesting question. I believe anyone can have a go at telling any person's story, if they try to do so faithfully, regardless of how vast the gulf in space and time, or in anatomy and social norms, between the author's own experiences and those of their character. Having said that, when my reading partner asked this question, I realized that there were details about Ash's work at disguising herself that were left out, most notably having to cope with monthly menstruation while concealing her gender. This did not detract from the story, but given the amount of attention the story gives to the physical strains of her time away from the farm and the efforts she undertook to conceal her gender, monthly cramps and bleeding warranted a mention.

Overall, a highly worthwhile read and a cleverly crafted story in the best of the storytelling tradition.

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