Belle Pettifaux is comfortable in her role as the young daughter of a Louisville physician. Unfortunately, the onset of the Civil War disrupts Belle’s world, sending her father and Samuel J., her sweetheart, into the Confederate army. When her mother dies, teenage Belle is sent from Louisville to Kansas to live with an aunt. She befriends local farm boy Earle Johnson—despite his suspicions about her Rebel ways—beginning a connection between the Johnson and Pettifaux families that deepens after the war ends, as Belle’s father marries Earle’s widowed mother, Earle marries Belle’s best friend, and Belle is reunited with Samuel J. At the close of the 1860s, financial troubles send half the family to California, and after overcoming numerous challenges, Belle reunites with her family’s former slave and discovers her calling as an opera singer. The book features period photographs captioned with the names of individuals and places in the story, leaving the reader to wonder whether the novel has a historical basis. Spann presents some engaging characters and develops them over the course of the narrative, but her decision to shift the narration from one character to another becomes confusing at times. The phonetic rendering of Southern speech is often taken to extremes, particularly when African-American characters speak: “Did y’all dance everee dance, Mizz Bayelle? Waz it fine? Ah talked to the drivers, everee laydee was plum cited.” A few minor but noticeable historical implausibilities (a 5-acre kitchen garden, a Kansas native who identifies as a Southern lady, etc.) might distract historical-fiction enthusiasts, but the story will still appeal to readers looking for a new perspective on the United States after the Civil War.
A novel of 19th-century America driven by strong characters but hampered by narrative and historical shortcomings.