REVIEW: Widow of the South by Robert Hicks
Dear Mr. Hicks,
I read somewhere that after being involved with Carnton Plantation and its Civil War cemetery for years and trying to interest any author in telling the story, you finally decided to write the book yourself. It’s a fascinating step back in time to a war tearing a country in half and how one woman dealt with having it literally come to her back yard. I just wish that I had known the approach you intended to take to tell the story.
The Battle of Franklin is not as well known as many Civil War battles but it has the dubious distinction of having a higher casualty rate in five hours than the 19 hours of the first day of the Normandy invasion, more deaths than Pickett’s Charge and sounding the death knell to the Confederacy. When it was over, a town of 2500 people struggled to cope with three times its number of dead and dying soldiers. Many were brought to the large plantation house which was visible from some of the battlefield and here Carrie McGavock, her family and slaves struggled to nurse them. Two years after the battle, Carrie and her husband John had almost 1500 buried soldiers reburied on their land when agricultural development threatened the original shallow graves hastily dug after the battle. Carrie gained national acclaim as she spent the rest of her life caring for what is now the largest private Civil War cemetery.
I wanted to love this book. I really did. Parts of it are marvelous. The horrible beauty of the battle, the agony of the wounded survivors, the glimpses into Carrie’s family, the after war fate of many and the ultimate birth of the cemetery are fantastic. I was riveted. But as you portray her, Carrie herself frustrated and annoyed me. She goes into these long, drawn out and convoluted thought processes which baffled me and only served to bring the action to a grinding halt. You insert fictional characters, one of whom serves as a “love interest.” If Carrie loves this man, I’d hate to be someone she didn’t like. She treats him more as a lab rat to watch and observe then goes postal on him at one point. Is there any basis for believing the real woman was like this? And was she truly in a years long state of continual mourning for her three dead children? That I could believe more easily, though, given the high infant mortality of the time. At one point you have her slave and lifelong companion, Mariah, get angry and tell Carrie off as a woman who wants everything “just so” and who doesn’t seem to care who she inconveniences to get her own way. After reading 350 pages of this self obsessed woman, I thought, “you tell her sister!” You also tell the story from many different first and third person points of view. At first I wasn’t sure what you were doing by that but finally guessed that the most important personages speak in first person while the secondary ones use third.
I would have loved this book told as non-fiction. I could handle this book with fictional characters and your attempts to flesh out what is known of the real people and place and events if it hadn’t gotten bogged down in this relationship you invented between Carrie and a soldier which takes an enormous amount of space and yet revealed almost nothing to me. There is enough of the book that I did enjoy to grade it a B- but, oh what I wish it had been.