Scott (Cassandra, Lost, 2004, etc.) traces the intersecting paths of a runaway slave, an ex-belle and a Southern cracker in Civil War North Carolina.
The daughter of a former slave-owner whose failing fortunes have taken them to a mining town, Eugenia Spotswood still pines for her old life in Wilmington. Instead of receiving gentleman callers and revering the memory of a dead mother whose grievances against her husband were expressed in too-vigorous combing of her daughter’s “unnaturally” curly hair, Eugenia is condemned to slatternly drudgery, keeping house and treading long hours on “rockers” harvesting gold dust. Her only respite is Tom, sold to the mines after running away from a plantation near Chapel Hill. Purchased by Spotswood, Tom endears himself to Eugenia, and soon even abolitionist tongues are wagging. When impending war bankrupts the mine, Eugenia helps him flee and absconds herself in another direction with Spotswood’s gold so she won’t have to follow Papa on yet another doomed odyssey. Tom finds work and friendship as a turpentiner and later as a Union scout. Meanwhile, Clyde, the dirt-farmer’s son who caught Tom back in Chapel Hill, flees North after his draft-dodging and slap-happy Pa is killed. Clyde likes the Union soldier’s life until he’s waylaid in a barbaric POW camp (Scott excels at descriptions of gore and putrescence) and winds up, naked and frostbitten, at the house of abolitionist Aunt Baker. And who should Clyde meet there but Eugenia, who was robbed of her ill-gotten gold and became a passionate nurse to the wounded runaways and deserters Aunt Baker harbors in her cellar? When gangrene returns despite an amputation, Clyde insists on seeing his mother before undergoing more surgery. Hoping for news of Tom, Eugenia escorts Clyde home. As the war ends, Tom is also headed for Chapel Hill, bereft of everything except a dead friend’s infant daughter.
Despite occasionally heavy-handed symbolism and anachronistic language, a riotous panorama of a society in chaos.