A large, ambitious, carefully researched novel tracing the impact of the Civil War on a Virginia slave-owning family, their...

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JACOB'S LADDER: A Story of Virginia During the War

A large, ambitious, carefully researched novel tracing the impact of the Civil War on a Virginia slave-owning family, their neighbors, and their slaves--with enough melodrama and subplots to fill several books. McCaig (Nop's Hope, 1994, etc.) notes that he set out to explore why Southerners were so eager to risk their ""lives, fortunes, and honor in such a forlorn struggle."" While his portrait of the Gatewoods does suggest something of the complexity of forces that pushed the South into war, the exploration is soon lost in a welter of Gatewood adventures. Before marching off to war, Duncan, heir to the plantation, sees his mulatto lover and the son he's had with her sold down south by his outraged father. Later, he and his brother-in-law, Catesby Byrd, serving with Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, are caught up in ferocious battles and are olden witnesses to turning points in these engagements. Duncan, repeatedly wounded, eventually loses an arm. And the seemingly unrelenting Catesby is finally so overwhelmed by four years of slaughter that, after a particularly vicious clash in the Wilderness campaign, he commits suicide. Meanwhile, Duncan's former lover Maggie, having been sold to a bordello, is bought by a wealthy cotton-broker turned blockade-runner who marries her, successfully passing her off as white, and Jesse, a bright, determined Gatewood slave, flees the plantation and signs up with a black regiment. McCaig deftly weaves the adventures of these figures, as well as those of a variety of lesser characters (including bandits passing themselves off as Southern partisans, a schoolteacher turned outlaw, and a resolute young woman serving as a nurse for the Confederate Army), into a vivid, crowded narrative, ending with Lee's surrender. The battle sequences, and McCaig's feel for the specifics of 19th-century life and mores, are impressive. Too bad that the few Federals are ciphers, suggestive of the prevailing one-sidedness that holds this often powerful tale from an epic breadth and dilutes its impact.

Pub Date: April 1, 1998

ISBN: 0393337103

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 1998