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'The Widow of the South': To live and die in Dixie

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``The Widow of the South'' by Robert Hicks; Warner ($24.95)


This book fits almost too snugly into its genre. As in so many Civil War novels, the heroine is a pampered Southern lady who discovers hidden reserves of strength and determination in adversity. But there's something about "The Widow of the South" that keeps it from being - well, generic.

It's the first novel by Robert Hicks, a 54-year-old Nashville music publisher and antiques collector who came up with the idea for the book when he joined the board that oversees Carnton Plantation, a historic site in Franklin, Tenn. Carnton abuts the battlefield where terrible carnage took place in November 1864. It was possibly, Hicks tells us in an author's note, "the bloodiest five hours of the Civil War." The Confederate troops were hurled against the Union forces in a suicidal charge that makes Pickett's at Gettysburg and the Light Brigade's at Balaclava look like triumphs of military strategy. Of about 9,000 casualties in the Battle of Franklin, 7,000 were on the Confederate side.

The plantation house was turned into a field hospital where Carrie McGavock, the owner's wife, nursed the wounded. After the war, the McGavocks moved almost 1,500 bodies that had been buried in shallow graves on the battlefield and reburied them on plantation land. By faithfully tending this private cemetery until her death in 1905, Carrie earned the epithet that gives Hicks' novel its title. She was something of a legend in her time: Even Oscar Wilde expressed an interest in visiting the "priestess of the temple of dead boys" when he visited America in 1882.

Before the war forces her to nurse mutilated and dying soldiers, the Carrie McGavock of Hicks' novel has sunk deep into mourning for her two daughters and a son, lost to childhood diseases. She neglects her surviving children, as well as her husband. But when the wounded are piled into her home, she is roused from her torpor. And soon she is startled by the feelings aroused in her by one of the men, Zachariah Cashwell, who lost a leg in the battle. He's not safe yet, however: When Carrie realizes that she's falling in love with Zachariah she almost kills him.

Hicks has yielded to convention and given his novel a buzz of sexual tension by introducing a forbidden love interest for his heroine. It can't help feeling contrived: She was a real person, and he's a fictional one. But the novel is not so much about the relationship of Carrie and Zachariah as it is about how she became an icon of heroic endeavor. Zachariah is perplexed by the steel in the magnolia: "She acted like she'd seen everything, and that made me a little angry. How could a woman who had spent her life wrapped up in shawls and waited on by nigras know a damn thing about anything?"

Well, what she knows about is death. After the war, the owner of the land on which the battle took place decides to plow it and plant cotton, even though thousands of dead soldiers are buried there. "I imagined the plow going through those bones, crunching them up and turning them into fertilizer," Carrie tells us. She's determined to keep that from happening, not just because of the sacrilege, but because she knows the consequences: "I knew that if a man like Baylor plowed that field, it would never be forgiven by others. Itself an act of violence, the plowing would breed more violence."

So Carrie decides to confront Baylor about his plans when they meet at a party. But Baylor is ready for the encounter, she tells us: "I watched how, with every step across the room, the architecture of his face shifted and his skin reformed itself until he was transformed into the image of the benevolent man of business, offensive to no one. This was the most awful face of all, I decided."

Hicks tips his hand here, I think. Baylor's "benevolent man of business, offensive to no one" must be a lot like the developers that Hicks the historical preservationist has encountered. For behind this entertaining and often moving work of fiction lies an agenda: Hicks has admitted that his novel is designed to promote restoration of the battlefield - a Pizza Hut now sits on it - and preservation of Carnton Plantation.

But the propagandizing mostly doesn't show; Hicks makes his point by skillful writing that's surprising in a novice. His principal narrators, including Carrie and Zachariah, have distinct and convincing voices. There's a fine array of secondary characters whose subplots add layers of texture to the main narrative. And throughout the book there's an attention to vivifying detail that sounds like the work of an experienced novelist.

For example, Zachariah carves little wooden toys for Carrie's children: "a lean, ridge-backed hog for Winder and a little swaybacked horse for Hattie. He told them not to lose them, that there was something special about the little toys and that bad luck would come to them if they were lost. The children, of course, became afraid of their toys and put them away in drawers for safekeeping and never took them out again. Zachariah, I knew, would never have his own children if he could help it."

Hicks also deftly handles the problem that contemporary Civil War novelists encounter when their heroes are Confederates: We don't believe in the nobility of the Southern cause, given that it was in defense of the enslavement of human beings. There are only two important black characters in the novel - Mariah, the slave who remains loyal to Carrie even after the war, and her son, Theopolis, who sets up shop as a cobbler and manages to make a go of it. But they add a welcome note of irony and moral complexity, undercutting the potential sentimentality of Carrie's devotion to the Confederate dead, who in Mariah's view are "hundreds of white men who ain't done one damned thing for me or mine ever. If they'd had their way, my son wouldn't have no cobbler shop."

"The Widow of the South" doesn't have the imaginative depth and lyrical eloquence of "Cold Mountain" or the mythmaking epic sweep (or the sentimentality and racism) of "Gone With the Wind." But what it does have is a shrewd author who knows and loves what he's writing about, and that helps give his book its narrative drive and emotional impact.


(c) 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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