A Civil War–era novel that documents the grim wages of battle.
The story begins by establishing a ghastly tenor of barbarity. The family of Cuuda, a black child, hides him in a box to keep him from harm as they travel. From inside the box, he hears the murder of his family members, but he later frees himself in order to find food. A traveling mortician named Jupiter Jones eventually rescues him; he’s a “showman and purveyor of the extraordinaire,” traveling from town to town, tricking the afflicted into buying his curative oil. He stole its essential ingredient from a tribe in Africa and although it does genuinely have medicinal powers, it also causes madness. Still, the war brings him plenty of business as the dead litter the countryside of the North and South. Meanwhile, three Union doctors—Solomon Hardy, Josiah Boyd, and Tobias Ellis—struggle to keep pace with all the wounded men sent their way. Debut author McDaniels affectingly describes scenes of battle, but his most achingly poignant depictions are of war’s aftermath: “The church-turned-hospital had become a horrid place…where four men died every hour day and night and the rain and blood ran as red mud across the ground.” The surgeons work indefatigably to save whomever they can, comfort the rest, and try to preserve their own sanity. In another storyline, a Union soldier, Ezra Coffin, is badly wounded in battle in southern Pennsylvania and finds himself beside Maj. Tom Jersey, a Confederate soldier who’s just as badly hurt. Despite being enemies, they forge a kind of friendship due to their shared anguish and looming mortality. McDaniels skillfully braids these multiple plotlines into a coherent whole, but his quick leapfrogging from one subplot to another can be wearying. Also, the story’s impressive historical authenticity comes at a price of unrelenting gloominess, so readers should prepare for a dexterous but austere experience.
A gritty, unalloyed treatment of a savage conflict.