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'Widow' gets the facts right but the nuances wrong



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Robert Hicks' debut novel, The Widow of the South, has some of the elements of a successful historical novel but not enough to save it.

The author shows passion for his subject, substantial research and the best intentions of wanting readers to acknowledge the many sacrifices made during the Civil War. But he fails to perform the literary alchemy that transforms information into a believable plot and compelling characters.

The result is an overwrought, overwritten novel that misses conveying the war's terrible reality and the courage of one woman. Caring for the wounded and dying, she goes on to maintain the graves of the dead for the rest of her life.

The worst part of this failed literary effort: Widow could have been an excellent non-fiction title, particularly if Hicks had accompanied his text with photographs. The most satisfying chapter is the author's note, in which he explains the true story of Carrie McGavock, the mistress of Carnton, a still-standing Tennessee plantation.

During the Battle of Franklin on Nov. 30, 1864, her house served as a Confederate hospital. McGavock and her slave, Mariah, worked ceaselessly among the wounded and dying.

Two years later, when a neighbor planned to plow a field in which lay almost 1,500 of the dead, McGavock and her husband reburied the remains at Carnton, where they are today. Called the "Widow of the South" in the national press, McGavock devoted the rest of her life to maintaining the graves.

Hicks tries to envision why McGavock became an icon of the South's grief over its lost sons. She is depicted as a mother virtually paralyzed by the early deaths of three of her five children from various illnesses. McGavock emerges from despairing isolation after witnessing the bloody aftermath of battle.

Like Michael Shaara's treatment of Gettysburg in The Killer Angels, Widow recounts the battle from different perspectives. Unfortunately, not one character resonates as a man or woman of their time. In particular, the character Zachariah Cashwell proves nettlesome. McGavock saves Cashwell's life by demanding that doctors amputate his leg. Cashwell resents her action and bickers with her, but he falls in love with her.

The hardest part of writing a historical novel is accurately depicting the language of the time. Hicks fails painfully. Mariah expresses herself in modern slang, and Cashwell says he has grown tired of women like McGavock "who think too much." These modern missteps reveal a failure of imagination and misuse of language.

Moreover, the battle's carnage, as well as the poverty, hunger and terror experienced by a defeated South, takes a back seat to Hicks' pretentious meditations on maternal grief, God, love, death and morality. By the end, the reader is ready to holler, "Scarlett, come home," "Inman, take me to Cold Mountain" or "Ken Burns, load that DVD."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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