Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Moonlight and Steel Magnolias

"Franklin is the blackest page in the history of the War of the Lost Cause. It was the bloodiest battle of modern times in any war. It was the finishing stroke to the Independence of the Southern Confederacy. I was there. I saw it." --Sam Watkins, 1st Tennessee Infantry

During this past week amid all the horrors and wreckage that Katrina wrought upon my neighbors in the south, I have been immersed in reading about another time of devastation and one more sinister because it was of human design and not the almighty wrath of Mother Nature at her fiercest. Written by Robert Hicks and published by Time Warner Books, The Widow of the South, is a fascinating story about a different sort of southern heroine, Carrie McGavock, and her long dedication to "her boys" - Confederate casualties of the 1864 battle of Franklin, Tennessee. Hicks pays a beautiful and artful tribute to this unique woman, a story of courage, sacrifice and love. Not your typical romance novel at all, this book is a rich accounting of a real-life Steel Magnolia. While paying close attention to historical detail, Hicks manages to weave complicated characters and several subplots into one delicious read. This book reminded me of a novel I read years ago, True Women written by Janice Woods Windle. That story takes place just after the Civil War in Texas and chronicles the lives of some feisty and amazing Texas women. Like the tough and resilient women depicted in True Women, Carrie McGavock is no lightweight, no swooning Aunt Pittipat.

The small town of Franklin, Tennessee had been a Union military post since the fall of Nashville in early 1862. Confederate President Jefferson Davis had replaced commander Joseph E. Johnston with John Bell Hood in late summer of 1864. With an objective to drive Sherman away from Atlanta and Robert E. Lee's forces, Hood began to plan his Tennessee Campaign of 1864. On the afternoon of November 30th, 1864, the citizens of Franklin witnessed one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Later it would be called, "The Gettysburg of the West". (This is a very good description of the battle.)

After 5 hours of brutal combat, the fields lay bloodied with 9200 dead and injured soldiers, an overwhelming responsibility to the 2500 citizens of Franklin.

The Confederate dead lay on one side of the entrenchments, the Union dead on the other, and, in the night, the living Union troops quietly left town. They left town even as the Confederate commander planned his morning attack. A number of Confederates wandered the field looking futively for their friends, taking in the full extent of the horror that lay at their feet. It was only then, later in the cold night, that they noticed the silence. It was not total silence; there were still the moans and pleading of the dying in the air. But the aggressive sort of noise that had throttled their ears for near five hours - from the hour before twilight into the moonless night, the gunshots, the report of cannons - that noise had dissipated to nothing.

The stately planatation home of the McGavock family was suddenly spilling over with war-torn bodies and pitiful cries of pain and suffering at every step. Try as I might, I couldn't help but envision Gone With The Wind, particularly the scene where Scarlett is working less than wholeheartedly in a makeshift hospital at the train depot in Atlanta; the malnourished raggedy men of the Confederacy in their bloody rags and musket-blown limbs begging her for water and morphine. But, unlike Scarlett, Carrie McGavock throws herself fully into the care and nursing of these wounded men. She is not the simple contrivance of Southern Belle turned scrappy survivor that Scarlett represented; moreover, the character of Carrie is complicated, layered and not so easily niched. Long suffering the loss of three of her five children, Carrie had become a depressed emotionless cripple until the battle of Franklin brought both death and a renewed life to her doorstep.

Zachariah Cashwell, a hardscrabble dirt farmer from Arkansas, is among the wounded seeking refuge at Carnton Plantation. While this character is ficticious, Hicks embodies him with both dignity and grit, a good vehicle for seeing the war through a soldier's eyes. No swashbuckling Rhett here, Cashwell has lost a leg during the battle and the years of war have not been kind. Nonetheless, Carrie and Zachariah are drawn to one another, soulmates defying the almost palpable class lines between the genteel plantation wife and the crass Arkansas farmer.

When the shallow graves of the Confederate soldiers fall into danger of being plowed under, Carrie takes on the task of removal and reburial of nearly 1500 graves. The little private cemetery becomes her passion and her found mission in life. With the aide of her former slave, the mystical Mariah, Carrie journals her own personal book of the dead; she forces Mariah to speak aloud her "visions of the dead" so that she might better come to know each fallen soldier and his prewar life:

"Mariah wasn't sure that what she saw in her mind was real, just the product of a fevered imagination, or maybe the work of the devil himself making her play games with the white woman whom she loved in a way she could not describe. Fragments of light and sound came to her when she let her mind drift, and the words Carrie craved formed on Mariah's lips unbidden. It was a thoughtless exercise, a pastime to while away an afternoon. The thing she did know, the only thing she knew for sure, was that Carrie believed."

There is no escaping the comparison of The Widow of the South to the other novels that came before it, nor to their subsequent screen adaptations. Like his fellow authors of GWTW, The Killer Angels ( Gettysburg), and Cold Mountain, Robert Hicks has created a memorable story, one that gives a new facet to the Civil War era woman of the deep south. Hicks himself explained his own reason for writing the story:

"What I strive for is about transformation: how people are transformed by each other, by circumstances, by loss or gain."

He certainly succeeds, and I will be the first in line to see this book come to life on the big screen.

Many thanks to Miriam, at the Time Warner Book Group for suggesting this terrific novel to me.

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