Our book today is Robert Hicks' forthcoming A Separate Country, which turns on the literary conceit of a secret second memoir written by ill-starred Confederate general John Bell Hood.
If you'd have asked me last week to name the least promising American Civil War figure to act as the dramatic fulcrum for a work of historical fiction, John Bell Hood would have been at or near the top of such a list. The man was a morose, egotistical wet blanket at the best of times - Robert E. Lee once wrote that he was courageous on the battlefield and careless off it, and as usual with that old Sphinx, what he doesn't say is as resonant as what he does, namely that Hood was also courageous off the battlefield and careless on it. Leave it to one traitor to fully understand another.
Only if anything, Hood was more of a traitor than Lee. Lee at least could style himself a patriot to his home 'country' of Virginia - Hood didn't like the fact that his native Kentucky wasn't in armed rebellion against the Union, so he went shopping around for a rebel state that would adopt him. And his career in the Civil War was a long litany of blunders and vicious, callous mishandling of the men under his command, most famously at the Battle of Franklin, where he sent his troops out marching into enemy fire with no protection at all and reaped the inevitable wholesale slaughter with what could only be interpreted as grim satisfaction.
Such creatures don't exactly lend themselves to the central heroic role of a historical romance, and Hicks (author of the very, very good Widow of the South) surely knows that better than anybody, which is where the second book by Hood comes in - that's a great little idea, familiar from countless other historical novels, but no less serviceable for all that. In the second memoir's pages, Hicks gets to craft a Hood who's every bit as prickly, self-righteous, and dim as the historical Hood, but then charge that historical template with all sorts of sympathetic strata. It's blatantly manipulative, and it shouldn't work.
But it does. It really works. A Separate Country isn't just Hicks' best book to date - it's also one of the best historical novels I've read so far in 2009 and one of the best American historical novels ever written.
The book opens after the war, with a sick Hood (he died of yellow fever in New Orleans, after first watching his beloved wife Anna Marie die of the same disease) summoning our narrator Eli Griffin to his bedside and charging him to find this secret memoir, have it assessed, and see to its fate. Griffin is a marvelously drawn character from the very first page, and he's no friend of Hood's, having once tried to kill him. Hood, Griffin remarks, is "the first man I had ever seen a mockingbird actually mock," but he's under obligation to the old soldier, not to mention being touched by the tragic, tender family life he sees in disarray all around the man. Hood confesses to a deep, blinding love for his wife and his family (he refers to them as "a separate country," hence the book's title - although the phrase also acquires a second meaning as the book goes on, a devastating one), and his second, secret book is full of that love disingenuously described, a fact caustically brought to Griffin's attention once he allows the manuscript to be read by others:
"Why, Mr. Eli Griffin, why would Hood think anyone would be interested in reading this thing?" He let it flap over in his hand, and some of the pages wavered in the heat coming up out of the cookstove. Of course he would burn it, I thought.
"He writes as if he was the first man to love a woman."
"But perhaps that is true. We are always the first men to fall in love, no? No one else knows how it feels, not like we do. And when you have lived most of your life hard and grim and merciless, when you have finally fallen in love it must, must, be unlike anything else on this earth, unlike anything anyone else knows. Otherwise love carries the despair of all that you have misunderstood in the world and all that you have failed to see. Too painful, it's much better to think that it is one of a kind."
The most amazing thing about A Separate Country is the way Hicks mixes this unabashedly open, romantic side of Hood with the callous butcher of the historical record. In a less skilled writer's hands, the Hood who narrates his own story in the memoirs that constitute the bulk of this book would stand revealed as secretly compassionate, but no! No, this is the Hood all Civil War buffs know quite well:
There was a hospital at Franklin, where the hundreds died. Several of them, actually. They hadn't been hospitals before I rode my army up into that town, but for weeks afterward those houses and mansions and churches were the refuge of the maimed and the hopeless, my casualties, the men who's names we'd have to strike from the rolls. Their absence would be my handicap, my burden. When I walked through the Methodist church that cold day in November 1864, I was angry. Not at myself, never that, but at them. Them in their neat rows of improvised cots. Blood and piss ran between the floorboards, there were men who would never wake up from their slack-jawed sleep, there was a man missing his tongue and bottom jaw who flapped the sagging skin of his bottom lip at me.
I studied their faces for signs of malingering. I poked men at their wounds to ascertain the degree of their pain. The church-women gaped at me and finally, tired of my harassment of their charges, took to rattling the bedpans against the bed frames in protest. Had they been my troops I would have had them locked up. Instead I left, disgusted. How had they let this happen to them, I remember thinking of the men in that hospital room. Why did they let it happen?
That ramrod, repellent Hood is humanized somewhat by the end of his book and Hicks', but not as much as you'd expect, and the reason is the same saving grace that animated Widow of the South: Hicks has a fundamental respect for his readers' intelligence. That kind of respect - the trust it implies - is extremely rare in writers of historical fiction; they've done all the research, after all, and they severely doubt you can follow along unless they spell it all out for you. The triumph of A Separate Country is that Hicks trusts you to follow along on your own, without him hovering over your every reaction. He even dares to trust that most of you have at one point or another in your life fallen hopelessly in love - and if you have, that plot-strand of this book will have you nodding in fervent agreement. So: not only a winning historical novel starring, of all people, John Bell Hood, but a touching love story starring John Bell Hood. Can a J. Edgar Hoover cookbook be far behind?
A Separate Country comes out in hardcover in September. I don't usually advocate the purchase of such murderously expensive books, but two months is time enough to save up, and this is an author who actually deserves your money. Alternately, you could go to your local library, create a waiting list for the book, and put your name at the top of that list. And of course there's the tried-and-true Stevereads approach: if my review here intrigues you, I'd be happy to acquire a copy of the book for you myself and send it along.
The important thing is that Hicks has written a quiet little masterpiece (I've only scratched its surface here), a fictive highlight of 2009, and you shouldn't miss it. In two or three years, I predict, this author is going to write a massive Civil War epic and gain wide-stage immortality for it (there'll be comparisons with War and Peace, mark my words) - but he's doing deeply invigorating work right now, and his best stuff yet comes out in September.