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'The Widow of the South': A fictionalized account of war, love and nobility



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

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On Nov. 30, 1864, a battle at Franklin, Tenn., reached, then filled the home of Caroline Elizabeth Winder McGavock. In five hours, 2,500 Union soldiers and 6,700 Confederate soldiers were wounded or killed. Among the dead were four Confederate generals, their bodies laid on the back porch of the McGavocks' plantation house, Carnton, on the eastern flank of the battlefield.

Inside Carnton, commandeered as a hospital by Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, hundreds of men died on the floors of every room and every porch while Carrie McGavock tore sheets and clothes for bandages, and two surgeons sawed away at the wounded.

Carrie existed; Carnton endures. One contemporary account observed, "Even her skirts were stained with blood from the gaping wounds of the dying men." Carrie died in 1905, long known as "the good Samaritan of Williamson County."

The years after the Civil War make her seem more remarkable. She and husband John McGavock reburied almost 1,500 Confederate soldiers behind their home. The family owning the land originally holding the dead in shallow graves had decided to plow over and plant the fields.

Carrie asked for the responsibility of reburial, recorded where each solider lay, traversed the cemetery daily, kept a book of the dead, wrote the bereaved. When Oscar Wilde made his American tour in 1882, he included a visit "to meet the Widow McGavock, the high priestess of the temple of dead boys," says an author's note.

Carrie took care of the living, too, after the war. She grew up near New Orleans and would request two or three orphans a year from that city, educate them, then find them homes and jobs.

"The Widow of the South" resurrects Carrie not in a biography, but a novel. Author Robert Hicks writes, "My one true interest as a writer has always been in Carrie, and in the people who moved in her orbit."

Unfortunately, Hicks does not stay with her voice but moves chapter by chapter through a variety of first-person narratives, often pit stops of 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 pages.

Hicks does create a number of intriguing, idiosyncratic characters not only in Carrie, John and Zachariah, but dying soldiers, neighbors with another tangled love story and Mariah, portrayed as both slave and friend.

His strategy gives us different viewpoints of the battle and its aftermath at Carnton, but this too-contemporary, quick-cut approach does not allow readers to sink and stay, even with the redoubtable Carrie.

Half the book is devoted to the killing and the dying on the field and at Carnton. The gory story of the battle itself is told by Sgt. Zachariah Cashwell, 24th Arkansas, and Lt. Nathan Stiles, 104th Ohio.

"Men would get to the other side of the hedge only to be sawn in half by the Yankee lead. After a while a few of the gaps we'd cut in the hedge were so filled with bodies that they were impassable again, as if the hedge had clotted itself shut," Zachariah says.

And the Union officer says, "The dead and dying were packed so tightly that men were charging right over them, shattering legs, arms and ribs. It was the sound of bones snapping."

At battle's end we're offered a neutral narrator: "It was said you could walk across the battlefield upon the bodies of the fallen and not once touch the ground. Others have described the dead as being stacked like cordwood or like sheaves of corn or like sacks of meal. By different accounts the ground ran with rivers of blood, or it was stained with blood, or it was blood."

Even so, "The Widow of the South" will be touted as a love story. Hicks uses Zachariah as a focus for the living heart amid the dead. The soldier is taken prisoner and, after being shot in an escape attempt, his right leg is sawed off under Carrie's supervision.

This invented and gratuitous romance seems disrespectful to the memory of the real woman, particularly given a ridiculous scene in which Carrie nearly beats to death Zachariah - for love.

The novel is not "Cold Mountain II," although publicity material suggests "... think Cold Mountain' meetsDr. Zhivago.' Nor is it "The Red Badge of Courage" with a woman and some romance.

That is not a criticism. Hicks' debut novel is his own creation, not a derivation. It is not a love story. It is an antiwar novel, although the author does not name that intent, nor does the publisher, with a 250,000 first printing.

The true subject of the novel is death - unexpected, imposed, feared, resented. When we meet Carrie she has been destroyed by mourning. Three of her five children are dead, and she is a recluse, daily considering suicide.

Remembering the suffering of her infant son, she thinks, "... his brows permanently wrinkled by pain and pleading, I saw the possibility of true innocence and the monstrous crime being committed against that very idea, against me, against my son."

As the soldiers die around her, - minute by minute, instructing her, her view shifts: "Loneliness was what we feared about death ... and to embrace it in life seemed mad."

And later, because of the cemetery: "Bones are bones, but not when they are married to life and memory, whether in the letters of the living or in the vision of a woman trembling at dusk in an unwelcoming field. After that, they're something more than bones."

And finally: "I simply remembered what Mariah had said about the dead in that field: They are all alone. I see a lot of men. ... That was my sign from God. ... I was not alone. I was surrounded by the living and the dead."

As are we all.

That is what makes this an interesting book, whether you're a reader eternally enthralled by the Civil War or flummoxed by the unending interest.

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(c) 2005, The State (Columbia, S.C.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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